Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

A cursory browse of book reviews about the debut novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, indicated that this was a well-written crime novel set in a fictional town in rural Victoria with a strong sense of place and characterisation. It is all this and more.

Aaron Falk, a Federal Police investigator, returns to his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his best mate from childhood, Luke Hadler. But the funeral service isn’t just for Luke; it is also for his wife and young son. And according to the police, Luke is responsible for their deaths. Falk’s return to the town to attend the funeral is ensured when he receives a cryptic note from Luke’s father, referring to a secret relating to the reason why Falk and his father were forced to leave the town decades before.

This is a book about secrets, big and small, in a town where everyone either knows everyone else’s secrets or has a theory about what they might be. Falk’s reappearance in the town sparks a spate of attacks, directly and otherwise, as the holders of the biggest secrets become increasingly desperate. There are twists and turns and dead ends and the frustrations of running an informal investigation quickly become apparent. And to make it all the more interesting, Falk isn’t your normal type of detective.

The story is set against the backdrop of the worst drought on record. It is so dry that everything crackles, the heat is so intense and there seems no end to it. The climate is a constant presence in the story.

I listened to this book as read by Steve Shanahan and it was addictive. I found myself arranging pockets of time so I could listen in sections, then during the breaks I was thinking about the characters and what had happened and who might be responsible for the various crimes. The questioning of how well you can really know someone, and how the keeping of a seemingly small secret can have major implications, is cleverly demonstrated.

The portrayal of raw emotions following the deaths is deftly portrayed, from the grief of the parents left behind in a small town to bear the scrutiny of their neighbours, to the anger of memories of earlier incidents. Everyone has an opinion and viewpoints are hard to shift; disdain shows through the pretence of hospitality and there is also blatant narrow-mindedness. But there are moments of humour and mateship too.

This book made me ponder more than once on the role of secrets in each of our narratives, whether intentional or otherwise. I highly recommend it as an engrossing read.

Harper’s website is here, including links to the first chapter, book updates and reviews.

Blue Mountains Book Settings

There are many upsides to sorting out your book collection. A definite highlight is being reunited with books that captured my attention and took me on a journey that remains vivid, years after reading them.

Amongst the stacks of books, there were some that I’ve put aside into a cluster of stories featuring the Blue Mountains. Here are a few fictional books that come to mind.

The Service of Clouds, Delia Falconer. Set in the early 1900s, this is the story of cloud photographer Harry Kitchings and Eureka Jones, a pharmacist’s assistant. I read it a couple of years before I moved here and think of it often when I catch myself looking upwards to watch clouds moving across the sky. The mural in Katoomba Street near St Hilda’s in honour of photographer Harry Phillips reminds me of it too; it is based on one of his photographs of the Bridal Veil Falls.

Dear You, Kate Llewellyn. This novel of love letters is set in Leura where the author lived for a few years. I read this when I first moved to the mountains, and remember scanning the entries for mentions of snow falling as that was one of my big concerns, being snowed in. It is a story of lust and longing and the everyday and gardens and being aware of the world in which you live.

Miles Off Course, Sulari Gentill. This is the third book in an excellent mystery series set in Australia in the 1930s featuring Rowland Sinclair. Rowly is an unconventional man from a privileged background who has bohemian friends including fellow artists and musicians. They get involved in all sorts of interesting situations which are historically accurate but with contemporary echoes. The series includes various famous and infamous people of the time in cameo roles. This book starts off in the Hydro Majestic where famous entrepreneur and hotelier Mark Foy is seeking Rowly’s input on the plans for his grand tomb which was to be carved into the grounds. This was true: it was incorporated into Foy’s will but it was ruled as not financially feasible by the court and his executors were released from any obligation to complete it.

Ash Island, Barry Maitland. This is the third installment of a trilogy featuring Harry Belltree, a Sydney detective with a troubled past and a complex network of enemies. In this final book, there is a murder early on in Blackheath, with Harry’s estranged wife Jenny the main suspect. But are things really as they seem?

Beware of the Dog, Peter Corris. My liking for Australian detective stories is apparent, and Corris is fondly regarded as The Godfather of Australian crime writing. His main character, Cliff Hardy, entered the literary scene in the 1970s and has been all over the country, and in various parts of the world, in his role as an old-school private investigator. In this installment, Hardy follows a lead up to a remote property past Mt Victoria, and the essence of this mountain village is well depicted. Hardy makes his final fictional appearance this year.

The Palace of Tears, Julian Leatherdale. This multi-generational fictional drama is based on the life of Mark Foy and his family. The author lives locally and has an extensive background in the arts and hotel management. This novel was a popular choice when it was released in time for summer reading a couple of years back and there is an interesting twist at the end. Julian has an article on the excellent Dictionary of Sydney website about the Hydro Majestic here.

Evergreen Falls, Kimberley Freeman. I came across this book by chance after listening to an interview with author on So You Want To Be A Writer. This story is set in modern times with historical flashbacks to a singular event in the 1920s which changed the course of the lives of several people. I liked the attention to detail, and the references to an old motel undergoing extensive renovations rang true as the Hydro was brought back from disrepair to its much more fashionable state.

Have you come across any books set in your town?

[Photo: detail from the mural in honour of Harry Phillips, Katoomba]

 

Short Story: Five Dollars

Christmas comes around at the same time every year, but some years it seems to arrive quicker than others. In the festive spirit, I have dug out a short piece that I wrote in response to a prompt in which all you have left in the world is five dollars. This is what I came up with.

It’s gone. All gone. The last gold coins in my pocket, tossed with feigned carelessness into the open guitar case. I pause, waiting a long moment for some sort of acknowledgement, a little recognition. But his eyes are shut, he’s lost in his music, his fingers nimble on the frets as the notes echo and pulse along the tiled entrance to the station. People are bustling past, buffeting me with the tips of handbags, nudging me with their luggage. Snatches of conversation clatter around and still he plays, his eyes closed, his expression borders on bliss.

Someone bumps me forward and I’m caught in the flow, barely able to glance back at him, my gold coins insignificant against the notes and shrapnel massing in his case. I let myself be moved along, barely registering my surroundings. My feet move of their own accord whilst my head throbs in a staccato beat. Gone. Gone. Gone.

How could I be so stupid, throwing away the last that I had into the case of a stranger? It was his handwriting that undid me, lessening my resolve. He was playing Christmas carols, not the usual mainstream drivel, but the sweet, melancholy songs that I haven’t heard since mass on Christmas Eve, several lifetimes ago now. The sign said he was making music to pay for his trip home, that he had miles to go and only music to get him there. The letters were messy, his spelling jarred my attention, and I was wondering if it was a deliberate ploy when the music overtook me, taking my breath away, shifting my mind to the place I called home when my life meant something and I had everything that mattered.

I’m suddenly free, separate from the jostling crowd. I’ve somehow shuffled to the side  and I slowly walk up the sloping gradient towards the platform. There is a almost a hush, now I’m out of the bustle, and I feel my heart settle into a steady rhythm. The platform is nearly empty, just a few people gathered in clutches on the scattered benches. I make my way past a family, two children holding bright helium balloons. One is marked with ‘Merry’ and the other ‘Christmas’ and I can’t help but smile at their obvious excitement. Their mother smiles at me and for a moment I forget, forget I am broke and alone on Christmas Eve. I close my eyes, hearing again the sweet notes of the guitar, smelling the rich tang of incense, my eyes drawn towards the candles at the altar, my hand held tight by my mother. I am home.

{Previously posted on Writers in the Mist}

[Photo: one of my favourite Christmas shop window displays in Katoomba]

The solution is seldom where you look for it

When it comes to writing fiction, my natural inclination is the short story form. It is a self-contained slice which can cover the transformation of a person or situation, allowing for amazing depth within a confined word count. My starting point is often a writing prompt, a what if, a snatch of conversation or something that I’ve glimpsed.

Early on my journey of writing short stories, I read an interview with a short story writer who said that she took months to write a short story. This surprised me initially, but the more I thought about it, and the more I write, the closer to the truth it is for me. Sometimes I can dash off a first draft that feels deceptively complete. It is the euphoria that comes with writing, particularly whilst in the zone when words seem to appear on the page in a flurry of ink. But it is best to put it aside and come back to it in a day or two, or longer if needed. Some perspective is required to see if the piece really holds together as it should or whether some tweaking or major re-writing is required.

It is easy to become impatient and settle for what you have written, telling yourself it is the best you can do. But there is usually room for improvement and you need to give yourself, and the work, some time for this to happen. It is like giving your subconscious a special project to work on: clearly list what you need to revisit (a saggy middle, a lacklustre conclusion, a twist that isn’t quite right) and leave it to get on with it.

Meanwhile, get on with your life. Start another story or work on a longer project, go and do the grocery shopping or walk the dog. The brain continues to rifle through the options, and will come up with ideas and suggestions as you continue on living. Some of my best fixes have come whilst doing something completely unrelated to writing, such as hanging out laundry, being on a conference call at work or walking the dog. It is invigorating when the idea seeps through, you test it mentally for soundness and realise that it will work.

How do you solve problems in your writing?

[Photo of the railway viaducts near Lithgow, NSW]