Book Review: The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea by Randolph Stow

Sometimes books live on my peripheral before the time seems right to read them. The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea is one such book. I have glimpsed it over the years on the bookshelves in my Mum’s extensive library, and the title itself became quite evocative and telling in its own way – the image of a merry-go-round conjures up visions of childhood and freedom of a kind. A recent biography of Randolph Stow (Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner) was extensively reviewed earlier this year; enough to remind me of an Australian author who I was yet to read. Then I spotted the audio book recently in the Blue Mountains Library online collection and it was available for instant download. The time was right.

The book steps with confidence into the lives of Rob Coram and his family, living in Geraldton, Western Australia, during the Second World War. Nearly six-years-old when the story begins, Rob is curious and direct and emotional with the intensity of a child. It is easy to believe his excitement at visiting the family farm, and it’s touching to see his affection and admiration for his Uncle Rick. The visit coincides with Rick’s twenty-first birthday, and Rick’s departure for war. Rob’s despair and grief is palpable, and throughout Rick’s extensive absence he maintains an avid interest and belief that Rick will return, even when his mother and aunts seem to lose faith.

Family connections form a constant yet changeable backdrop during the war years. Rob, his younger sister Nan, and his mother stay with various parts of the family as the threat of invasion increases then gradually fades. There are reminders of war everywhere, from trenches being dug into tennis courts to the rough justice in the school yard playgrounds. Rob’s father is an absent presence, initially stationed nearby and visible at odd intervals, only to disappear on war service and return in a perpetually distracted and absent state of mind.

The portrayal of Rick’s war imprisonment is devastating without being dramatised. Insights into the relationships formed during impossible times are shown in various guises, including the mateship between Rick and Hughie, a friendship which survives the war years but is tested in peacetime when the challenges of returning to a ‘normal’ life after near death existence are difficult to overcome, for Rick in particular.

Throughout this, the relationship between Rob and Rick develops, and Rob provides the sometimes brutal insights that children unintentionally make. Rick is direct in speaking of some of his wartime experiences with Rob, disturbing as they are. Rob in turn shares part of the rocky and awkward path towards adolescence with Rick.

The warmth and wit and humour of an extended family who love and mostly support each other is woven throughout the story, including some delightfully eccentric aunts. And then there is the landscape itself, countryside with a changeable beauty tracked by Rob through the seasons. He is saddened when he realises that he is a ‘townie’, wanting instead to be from the land. The harshness of the continent is shown too, but the natural beauty is conveyed with such genuine affection that the sights and sounds are vividly experienced.

By rock pools and creeks the delicate mauve-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs, but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump of branch suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt that he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

Listening to this book in the lead up to Anzac Day made it more poignant somehow, making me wonder how it was received when it was initially published in 1965. I was sad to finish it, and pleased a couple of days later when I found a copy on my own bookshelves at home. I thought I’d picked it up somewhere in my travels.

There is a comprehensive review of the novel on the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog site here.

Have you discovered a hidden gem in your reading lately?

[Photo: flowering gum]

Ready, edit, go?

Back in July I finished the first draft of my novel. I can still recall the sense of puzzled joy at typing ‘The End’. It seemed so final, but there was a part of me that knew it was just the beginning. After printing a copy, I tucked the manuscript aside, happy to let it rest. I told myself that I needed perspective, and there had been a few short story ideas buzzing about my head that I wanted to explore. Oh, the heady delight of short stories which can be written relatively quickly, edited and tweaked, and feel finished. How I’d missed them.

But now the time has come when I need to get serious again and start phase two of the novel. I had managed to complete about half the novel during NaNoWriMo last year, and as November approached I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to participate this year. Instead of creating another tract of words that could form part of a novel, I was going to focus my energy on finishing what I started. I am usually a finisher, and the incomplete novel kept tugging at my elbow.

But where to begin? An online search on editing a novel brings up a veritable avalanche of responses. These vary from vague outlines to incredibly detailed steps which if faithfully carried out over 31 days will result in a novel that is fit to make its way into the world. The best approach for me will fall between the two extremes.

My plan is to read my novel. This sounds obvious, but what I want to do is read it in its entirety, avoiding my usual impulse to edit as I go. I want to revisit the themes and broad arcs of the story. A couple of weeks after finishing the first draft I was walking my dog when it occurred to me that the person that was the main character in my mind hadn’t developed or changed quite as much as another character. What if I had the wrong main character? These are the thoughts that come to mind when I think of cracking open the manuscript, and they could be just the tip of the iceberg. Or it could be better than I think.

What I want is clear in my mind. I want to get the novel to a point where it is ‘finished’ enough to pass on to a beta reader for feedback. I want to get it to the point where I feel that I have done all that I can to make it as good as it can be. I know that this process will not be easy, and that it will take time that is increasingly difficult to find, but I also know that this is something that took months to create and it deserves the application of time and energy in order to complete it. In essence, I need to do the work.

I know that I’ll get there. Now I have moved on from being overwhelmed by the scope of it, it feels less daunting than before. I’m finally ready.

How do you approach big creative tasks?

[Photo: waratah spotted at Blackheath – they are glorious beacons this time of year]

A Novel Approach

This time last week I was in a state of something close to euphoria. The reason? I had finally completed the first draft of my novel.

I had known the moment was coming. Although I am usually a planner, I had worked through the novel with only a rough idea as to what was to happen. There were character sketches and plot points at certain stages of the process along with flexibility which worked well. But as I approached the final quarter, I could feel a bit of reluctance creep in.

My creative writing to this point has mainly been in the space of short stories. There were several times throughout the writing of the novel that I was secretly pleased that I had made it this far. But it was also a bit daunting. I know, you see, that this is only the first draft. I will need to edit, to carve out bits, to write new sections. As I wrote I had to battle the urge to edit as I wrote. But once I started to tinker with the structure, the house of cards might tumble. Instead, I channeled the advice listed under ‘Finish the damn novel‘ and finished the damn novel.

It is imperfect. Some writers are famous for writing scores of drafts before they have the final, polished gem. Others seem to be able to attain perfection with hardly an edit. As the logical conclusion to the story approached part of me was wondering if the character arc development was enough. Should I up the ante for a character by doing this, or tweaking that, or is something entirely different required?

It would be easy to spend my writing time devouring the millions of words of writing advice regarding what to do now I’ve finished my draft. Instead, I’ve paraphrased Stephen King in my head and I’m going to let it sit for a few weeks. I have a copy of the draft printed and ready to edit, but I’ve resisted the impulse to pull out a pen and start scrawling amendments. It needs to breathe a bit. As do I.

There are other writing projects that I am keen to get started on, chunkier jobs that just seemed too much to take on in addition to finishing a novel. So that is the approach that I plan to take for now.

Do you have a break of sorts between larger projects?

[Photo: a glimpse inside the pavilion at the Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath]

Banana Cake Bribery

As I write this post, I am in the last quarter of my current novel. In most areas of my life I am reasonably well-organised, prone to lists and spreadsheets and the like. This novel, however, was started during a time of turmoil which coincided with last year’s NANOWRIMO. I decided about a week before the start date that I’d give it a crack. I have done NANOWRIMO once before, and having even a rough outline was beneficial, particularly when the daily word count is quite high (1666.66 words) but with one thing and another, it was 1 November and off I went without a roadmap.

Somehow I made it to the word count goal of 50,000 with a couple of days to spare. It was challenging but rewarding to find the time to write in amongst everything else. I have continued on with the novel since then, but I tend to pick it up, do a bit then move on to something else, which is not ideal. I have also created character summaries, location details and plot points. These have been scanned into Evernote so I can pick them up wherever I am, and the hard copies are dotted around my study.

One of the reasons I like NANOWRIMO is the word count goal. Some writers estimate their progress using pages completed, or plot advancement. There is a part of me that is itching to re-read the first draft, tidy up the inconsistencies and generally see how it hangs together. But the persistent part of my personality is winning at present, and it wants the damn novel finished. Tinker all you like when you finish it, just get the words down.

This is where the banana cake comes in. My goal today was to hit the 85,000 word mark. Which required about 3,200 words. I rather reluctantly started, then my fingers were dancing and the pages were flying by (I am getting the first draft down using Pages, and will do the editing and rework via Scrivener). I keep an eye on the page numbers as I go, not the word count in case my short-attention span kicks in and I start to think of other things I can, should or could do other than come up with another batch of words. I worked out that if I could get to page 215, there would be enough words on the page and I could have cake.

I made it. The cake was moist with lemon icing. It was worth it.

How do you bribe yourself to write when required?

[Photo: part of the Waste2Art 2016 Exhibition showing at Eskbank House, Lithgow]

Finish the damn novel*

One of my favourite podcasts which I’ve mentioned before is ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ by Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait of the Australian Writers’ Centre. They have notched up over a hundred episodes and I’ve been a subscriber from the start, listening to the great mix of news, tips and tactics and an amazing array of interviews with writers from all backgrounds, as well as publishers, editors and other creative folk. If you don’t already subscribe, do your writing self a favour and sign up for the podcast.

Last week’s episode (# 104) stood out for me. The interview was with Pamela Freeman, who also writes as Pamela Hart. Freeman has written over 30 books across a range of genres, and whilst this was her second interview on the podcast (first was episode 58 ), there were a couple of comments which really resonated with me.

The first was discussion around the benefits of writing courses. Can you teach people how to write? Freeman drew an analogy between opera singing and writing. An opera teacher works on techniques to improve the student’s voice, and writing courses work in a similar way. They can help with method and approach, but the student’s input – the voice – remains unique.

Freeman also had words of wisdom around the need to finish the first draft, rather than perpetually revising, tweaking, making major or minor changes whilst never completing the novel. She suggested that you promise yourself that you will do as many drafts as you need to fix any inconsistencies or plot holes or whatever it is that keeps pulling you back rather than freeing you up to actually finish the work. As she said, most novels fail because they are incomplete.

Simple but powerful advice.

Now I’m off to keep writing my novel without a backwards glance.

Do you get caught up in tweaking rather than actually writing?

*This has been referenced in a couple of the SYWTBAW episodes as something that was spotted on a t-shirt at a writing conference. 

[Photo of mural in Blackheath]