Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]

Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]

 

Writers’ Journey, Sydney Writers’ Festival Event @ Katoomba

Like many readers and writers I find it interesting to hear how other writers approach their craft, how their interest in writing came about and what their process looks like, not least of all because it is unique to each writer.

And so I jumped at the chance to attend an event about the writing journey as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held in conjunction with Varuna and the Blue Mountains Library. The four people who shared their stories and insights into the writing life are accomplished Australian writers across fiction and non-fiction and their oeuvre crosses many genres. David White, who facilitated the event, acknowledged the endless fascination that readers and writers alike have in the writing process.

The session began with each writer providing a 15 minute overview of their writing life. Malcolm Knox shared the story of his first day on trial with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1994; Catherine Cole spoke of the influences of childhood, of how the joy and pleasure of reading led to a desire to create. Craig Cormick demonstrated his passion for writing the story that demands to be told by passing around a sample of his many published books, ranging across non-fiction, children’s fiction and short stories. Lisa Chaplin, a self-described housewife with an imagination, outlined her transition from romance writer to historical novelist, and shared her approach to writing which includes a hand drawn visual map incorporating the three act structure, soundtrack and scented candles specific to the current work in progress.

The reality and challenges of a writing life were acknowledged by all of the writers. Self-doubt, how your best work isn’t always your published work and how success does not always correlate to talent were some of the points agreed upon. Cormick said that writing exposes your heart and that publishing takes a bite (out of it), but write anyway. A couple of good examples of learning from the masters was provided by Chaplin, who learned the art of editing through the Romance Writers of Australia, and Fiona McIntosh Masterclass. All agreed on keeping drafts of your work, and to remove your darlings to a separate document rather than to kill them off completely – a character or situation which might not fit one piece of work may suit another.

But there are many upsides to a writing life as well. The importance of small things, of celebrating the success of other writers and of keeping in mind the need to engage in the world around you. How the best you can expect is a life in which there is space and scope to write.

Write anyway – this was the overarching message. Embrace the power of creation, and believe in yourself as a writer.

[Photo: Lisa Chaplin, Malcolm Knox, Catherine Cole & Craig Cormick, left to right]

Writing Prompt: A Familiar Scent

At a recent writing group gathering, we wrote to a prompt of ‘A Familiar Scent’. A few of the pieces have been posted on Writers in The Mist – you can find them here. Below is my contribution.

There was a familiar scent in the air. Annie paused, momentarily struck. It was the soft, sweet scent of freesias, a fragrance of her grandmother’s garden on a warm spring day and not something that she expected to smell in hospital in the depths of winter. She cast a look around the room but there was just one other woman resting opposite her. She was snoring softly and hadn’t woken when Annie had been wheeled into the corner.

Annie leaned forward, thinking that perhaps it was just a floral scent being worn by one of the nursing staff. But there was no-one in sight and all that she could smell now was the brazen note of antiseptic, strong enough to singe nasal hair and cover most of the bodily odours in the ward. She sighed and closed her eyes. It might have been the effect of the medication or a delayed impact of the anaesthetic but as she closed her eyes, suddenly drowsy, she could smell it again.

Annie let her mind wander back to when life was simple and relatively pain-free, when her school holidays were spent at her grandparents’ house and days passed by playing in the wonderland that was their garden.

The freesias were planted in a neat row along the driveway, forming a fragrant guard of honour along the entrance. There were several garden beds at the front and back of the property, and Annie could picture the native trees marching along one fence line, bristling with banksia men and their fierce brown faces. The front garden was encircled by camellias, their blooms both large and small providing a colourful carpet of petals as the seasons changed. A large macadamia tree stood sentry over the driveway, its barbed leaves protecting the tough nuts. Bright bottle brushes and grevilleas tempted the birds, honeyeaters dancing swiftly about when the shrubs were in bloom.

The steep back garden had been terraced in part to grow vegetables. Crisp beans grew against the back fence, sharing a space with colourful sweet peas in spring. Parsley grew in pots, and Annie had loved to pluck and lightly crush the curling herb between her fingers. Large cabbages grew in winter, their dark green and purple leaves encasing the heavy hearts of the vegetables. The cumquat tree had enchanted her; the zesty skin of the carefully harvested small fruit later transformed into jam. A gum tree towered high above the clothes line, a favourite podium for the magpies to sing their beautiful songs.

Annie walked herself around the garden again, taking slow steps to enjoy the multicoloured freesia blooms, almost too heavy for their stems. She walked over to the camellias, marvelling at the marbling of pinks and whites and reds on the petals, such a contrast to the glossy emerald leaves. She reached out and felt once more the soft and comforting warmth of her grandmother’s hands as the scent of freesias surrounded her.

Creative Lessons from Pets

Recently I was remembering when my dog, Buster, appeared in my world. I had wondered how this puppy, full of energy and noise, would fit into my life.

This led me to consider some of the lessons and habits that he has taught me which foster creativity in my days. Here are some of the learnings so far.

Naps

Dogs are brilliant at sleeping. There are bursts of activity and they will run and jump and bark and chase anything. Then there’s nap time. Naps can be short or long, and napping is permissible at any time. And life is generally better after a nap. Ideas emerge, sometimes fully-formed plots or ways to move a story forward. As I write this, Buster is napping nearby, as if on cue.

If In Doubt, Shake It Out

Have you ever watched a dog discover something new in the yard, or find a forgotten toy stashed somewhere? Usually they will sniff around it and maybe poke it with a paw before picking it up and throwing it around. This also works for trying out new approaches or routines. It is easy to get into a rut, creatively speaking. Sometimes you need to throw it all up in the air and see what falls down.

Discovery Tours

Also known as walks, these outings provide endless material from a dog’s perspective. So much to sniff and scratch, even if the walk is a familiar one. These regular airings are great for writing material too, or for solving plot or scene problems. There have been many times when I’ve untied a writing-related knot whilst walking my dog. Even a short jaunt helps.

Don’t Be So Serious

Buster is always ready to play. Any excuse for silliness and he’s there. There’s no moping about the past or fretting about the future. There’s just right now. This sense of play can be harnessed when writing to prompts or brainstorming and coming up with different ideas.

Pay Attention

Dogs are alert most of the time. Even when apparently resting and doing nothing, they are listening to what’s going on around them and taking in sights and scents. Sometimes these small details can be telling, and can provide a creative spark.

There is an excellent post called Dogma for Writers by Sue Owens Wright here, inspired by her basset hounds. Have you picked up any creative tips from your pets?

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Buster enjoying autumn leaves and keeping an eye on a singing magpie

Sydney, Her City: Short Fiction

She had watched the bridge take shape. It had seemed an impossibility, an absurd idea that the sheer expanse of the harbour could be tethered by steel and iron. There had been talk of it for so long that it seemed like an intrinsic part of her childhood memories, its design a favourite topic of debate. Then suddenly whole streets and entire neighbourhoods began to vanish, houses and shops and factories that had been familiar were pulled apart and families were forced to relocate.

Ella’s family had been lucky. They had been earmarked for relocation but changes to plans meant that their street was spared. She could recall heading off to school of a morning, walking through nearby streets with her brothers and sister, then the shock of arriving home to find rubble and dust where houses had been. Her mother had complained of the dirt and the rats that seemed to be in plague proportions as buildings that had stood firm for decades were pushed over and destroyed within a day.

Her eldest brother had landed a job on one of the many construction crews that worked on the bridge. He would come home with stories about the movement of massive sandstone blocks that would form the pylons to anchor the bridge. Bert’s excitement at being part of something momentous was tangible and contagious.

But the building of the bridge took so long that Ella’s interest eventually waned. By the time it was almost complete, the magnificent arch tantalisingly close to joining, she was working at a tea shop in the city, down near Circular Quay. The bridge was visible, a looming presence in the background, but she was busy with work and stepping out of an evening on dates and going to dances.

After marriage Ella stopped working, settling quickly into domestic life. She found herself drawn to the harbour, taking the pram along the narrow city streets and steep gradients down to the foreshore. She loved to walk past the ferries, puffing out smoke, their sturdy shapes seemingly insignificant as they motored their way underneath the enormous arch of the iron coat-hanger.

When Ella and her husband moved to the suburbs, she still managed to visit the city occasionally, especially when Christmas shopping trips came up. To turn into a street and glance up at the bridge gave her a thrill that she couldn’t quite explain. The bridge became less extraordinary over time to most Sydneysiders, just a way to get from one side of the harbour to the other. But for Ella it remained one of her favourite things. Her birthday treats invariably included a trip to the city to take in the splendour of the bridge, now a constant presence against a changing city skyline. For Ella, the bridge was the essence of Sydney, her city.

Inspired by a writing prompt using a postcard painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Do landmarks appear in your writing?

Let’s Get Critical

Over the years my attitude and approach to providing feedback on the work of other writers has changed considerably. This isn’t too surprising in hindsight, but after providing feedback on a handful of short stories recently, it made me think a little deeper about what has changed and why.

In my first writing group, we had the opportunity to prepare up to 300 words on a topic which was provided prior to the meeting. The work could be prose or poetry, factual or fictional, and it was brought along, sight unseen, to the gathering. Time was put aside for reading the work aloud and receiving feedback if requested. By listening to the feedback provided by others, I began to learn how to identify what worked and how to articulate constructive criticism on other people’s writing.

Constructive criticism is challenging to prepare and to give, but the benefits of being able to make suggestions which may clarify unclear points and strengthen the work are significant. By reading and thinking critically about someone else’s writing, it provides the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of different styles and approaches, often in genres that you might not spend much time in. It stretches the mind and helps you to see what is possible.

Most of my critiquing these days is completed at my desk with a copy of the work to hand. I prefer to read the work through quite quickly, resisting the urge to mark up sections or make corrections, trying to focus instead on the story and the impression that it leaves on me. If I can, I will leave the work for a day or so before returning to read it slowly, taking my time to write comments and scribble thoughts. I will then jot down impressions of the piece, along with what worked and what might be improved. In my writing group we share feedback at regular critiquing sessions, and it is helpful to see what resonates with others along with picking up on insights from other writers. It is a great way to hone critiquing skills.

I find that bringing a critical eye and a different perspective helps me with my own work as well, reminding me that sometimes you need to step away in order to really see how a piece comes together.

There are many online critiquing groups where writers share their work and provide feedback on other people’s stories. For now I find that there is enough critiquing to be done in my existing writing circles, but I may venture into online critiquing in the future.

What is your experience in providing constructive feedback?

[Photo: bikes spotted in the small village of Marulan – offering a different viewpoint of something familiar]

Writing Prompt: A Musical Moment

One of my earliest memories of writing to music was when I was about ten years old. I can still picture the classroom and the pens poised over exercise books as we were instructed to listen to the music and to write what it brought to mind. The music was the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, and I wrote a poem about war and battle – hard not to as the canons boomed and the music built to a crescendo. The rattle of the drums and the call to arms was impossible to resist.

On a recent writing retreat, music was used as a prompt. There were three short pieces played, all exquisite and evoking surprisingly similar responses amongst the writers gathered around the table.  The first piece was a Norwegian folk song called Heiemo Og Nykkjen performed by Kirsten Braten-Berg. For me, the music was a melancholic song of farewell.

The music swirls around me, holding me close in its grasp. I want to weep, to turn back, to return to where I belong. But it is my song of farewell. My people are letting me go. I walk slowly, one heavy foot in front of the next. I know the tune so well; it is carved into my heart from so many other farewells. I have sung it myself when my brother left the valley, leaving our village behind. We were sure that he’d return, that it would only be a brief separation. But he has not returned. And now I, too, must go.

My sister’s voice lifts and as the notes tremble around me I stumble. But I cannot turn back now, as much as my heart breaks. I must continue on.

One of my fellow writing group members has written of the impact of the musical prompt session here.

Have you used music as a muse for writing?

[Photo: mural spotted in Hornsby next to second-hand bookshop The Bookplate]

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]

Spinning Yarns: Creative Collaboration

Recently I attended a talk by Marilla North, author of Yarn Spinners. This is the first instalment of a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Australian writer Dymphna Cusack. Creative endeavours between women, and in particular the weaving and creation of stories through collaboration, is illustrated through letters between Cusack and Florence James, as well as correspondence with their contemporaries. The novel written by Cusack and James, Come In Spinner, won a Daily Telegraph manuscript competition. The competition was during the period of the broadsheet circulation wars of the 1940s with a prize of £1,000 on offer.

But the Cusack/James novel was much larger than the newspaper expected: the intention was to print the winning entry in two weekly instalments – an incentive to further drive circulation numbers. Attempts to reduce the novel size, initially submitted at 120,000 words, were not agreed to by the authors, and it ended up being printed through a London publisher when the manuscript was released by the Daily Telegraph three years later. The size of the manuscript wasn’t the only issue: its portrayal of abortion, war-profiteering, prostitution, black marketeering and the role of women during wartime was regarded as extremely controversial at the time.

Cusack and James lived in the Blue Mountains for a spell, moving towards the end of the Second World War to a cottage in Hazelbrook. North gave an overview of the household of two women and a clutch of children with regular visitors from the city and further afield. This included Miles Franklin bringing up bantam chickens for their mountain garden. Cusack had collaborated with Franklin previously to write Pioneers on Parade. The hallway in the house was used to assist with managing the book structure: newspaper articles from the week in which the novel was set were pasted to the butcher’s paper lined along the hallway, the real events forming a backdrop for the  novel.

This was the second project that Cusack and James had worked together on: the first had been a children’s book called Four Winds and a Family. James later recalled that they each contributed chapters, ‘did some editing patchwork’ and realised that their writing matched well enough. The same approach was used for the novel. Cusack, who suffered from health issues (neuralgia, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis) would dictate as James typed, and James would edit and write when Cusack rested. The arrival of a dictaphone for Cusack speeded up the project.

There is a link to the website for Yarn Spinners here, and The Australian Collection: Australia’s Greatest Books by Geoffrey Dutton also provided interesting background on the creative collaboration between Cusack and James. There is an excellent post by Michael Burge providing further insight into the time James and Cusack spent in the mountains here.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project?