The dancing queen

I know I’ve written about perspective before, but I had a brush with perspective of a different kind today and it surprised me. This was a case of the same person looking at the same thing through very different eyes. The subject of this perspective was Dancing Queen by ABBA, and the person was me.

I remember listening to Dancing Queen as a child and dreaming that one day I could be that dancing queen. But 17 seemed so very far off, it was over a decade away and I was sure it would never come. I had to be content with dancing in the lounge room by myself.

Then I remember listening to dancing queen again, this time in a nightclub during my first year of uni when I was 17. It’s funny, but when the techno tunes were not playing, Dancing Queen was still a favourite. I clearly thought myself very much the dancing queen as I was usually among the first out on the dance floor.

Now, as I listened to it today, I lamented that my time as the dancing queen (now ten+ years in the past) was forever behind me. Again I would be relegated to the lounge room if I wanted to relive my time as that royal with rhythm.

How funny that one song could bring back all those memories, mixed with all those very different feelings over a space of just a few minutes.  

Now you’ll have to forgive me for cutting off early, but the lounge room beckons…
YouTube Preview Image

Between a feather and a sledgehammer

Lots of us like stories that end in a twist or reveal. I love both reading and writing them, but sometimes the story doesn’t quite work, and in the worst case scenario you don’t understand the end of the story. The fault of this mystery comes down to getting the right balance of foreshadowing (or slipping hints into the earlier parts of the story).

It’s a fine line to tread, you need to pepper your story with enough clues so that if someone was re-reading it they would slap their forehead and go ahh, it all seems so obvious now, but put too many of these in and everybody guesses how the story ends before they get there. Wouldn’t you have enjoyed ‘The Sixth Sense’ a lot less if Bruce Willis had put his hand through the door handle at the beginning?

This is where a writers group can be invaluable. My general rule of thumb is that if half the group gets it, then it works. Fewer than half, then you have been too subtle with your hints. Also, if more than a couple guess your end before they got there, then you have overdone it.

So what do you do when you don’t have a writers group? You force your story onto a bunch of readers and get their feedback! Having recently released a story where you needed to pick up the clues to understand the end I am now feeling the brunt of my subtlety. If you miss the clues in this story you can think that it is just an ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ story (which is the kiss of death for an author). This has led to more than a couple of bad reviews. I had other hints I could have put in there, but I thought that would be sledgehammer-ing my reveal.

This story was written and published before I had a writer’s group, so as the editor ‘got it’ I figured I had my foreshadowing balance right. Now that it is on line I am discovering the majority of people don’t get it. What’s worse is when I explain it to people they shake their heads and say ‘nope, didn’t see that at all’.

Golden rule about writing fiction; if you need to explain your story, it is not well written.

I’m now on the edge of either a) pulling the story so there is no evidence beyond cached pages that it ever existed, and b) re-writing it with all the foreshadowing that I pulled out of the original version. I still like the premise, and the truth is there is a major continuity error that no-one seems to have picked up that I’ve wanted to fix ever since it came to me in the middle of the night a few months ago, so I think I’m going to go for the re-write.

So as much as one of my widest-read stories is also turning out to be one of my most disliked stories, at least I have learned a major lesson (which given all the times I blab on about how wonderful writers groups are you would have thought I would already have learned); always run a story past a group of readers before you send it anywhere (another golden rule).

Happy writing!

Nat

Whale watching

There is an upside to this rather miserable time of year, and that is the beginning of whale watching season. Being located in Adelaide at the moment, I’m well placed to pop down to the high peaks of the Victor Harbour bluff (or any one of the cliff edges that look out over the Southern Ocean) to watch the Southern Right Whales as they frolic around, give birth to and then play with their babies.

Yesterday we heard there was one such cetacean playing off Victor Harbour, so we all jumped in the car and set off on the one hour trek (with many games of eye-spy and twenty questions along the way to defer the inevitable ‘are we there yet’ from little miss six).

To add a bit of spice to our quest there was also a storm rolling in which we were desperate to beat. We could hear the crashes of distant lightning punctuating the old-time tunes on the radio (because we were listening to am radio as dad was driving and he is a big believe in ‘driver picks the radio station’, no matter how desperately the passengers protest. So really the lightning sound was a bit of relief).  

With the first splatters of raindrops on the window (splatters, not patters, these were big drops that looked not unlike clear seagull droppings) we arrived to search the slate grey ocean for signs of life.

Did we see any whales before the storm drove us back into the car and a further torturous round of twenty-questions? I’ll let my photos do the talking…

Fin in the water
Whale in the distance

 

Southern Right Whale
Close up of whale

Move to trash

It’s funny how when I post a blog the refreshed screen always comes up such that my cursor is poised over the ‘Move to trash’ option. I can’t help but think it is my blog software commenting on the quality of my most recent post.

This is the paranoia a writer must live with.

Neil Gaiman famously tells the story of how he calls his editor during every book at the ¾ mark (or something close to that point) and says it is totally crap and no-one will ever want to read it (I’m paraphrasing by the way). Writers all seem to go through this, the only difference is at what point it occurs. As far as I’m concerned, as long as it is not when you write ‘The End’ then you can get through it. If you hate it when it’s finished you are really in trouble!

I too hit the ‘this isn’t working I might as well throw it away’ at about the ¾ point. Even with short stories and sometimes flash fiction. I now know that I should celebrate when I get to that stage as it means I’ve only got a ¼ of the story to go! But as lightly as I talk of it, it can be a really difficult point to get through. This is where novels get put down and not looked at again for months, or even years. It is also usually a fictitious fear.

I have set aside many unfinished stories as lost causes, only to go back and read them later and have no idea why I stopped writing them. What’s worse is you are no longer on the roll so you cannot just pick them up and start writing with the same flow. Sometimes I even forget what the end was meant to be.  At best it means re-writes at worst it can be terminal (for the story, I’m not THAT melodramatic).

Breathing time for any story can be a good thing. If it is not working, or you don’t love it, putting it down can be a good idea. The key is not to let it sit too long. I think anything you turn your back on should be revisited within a week of setting it aside. This is long enough to be free of that strange writer paranoia that sucks you down into a mire of negativity, as well as distancing you enough to read with fresh, honest eyes.

Remember, editing is always an option. Heavy editing can save a badly written piece, and it doesn’t matter if you completely re-write 2/3rds of what you originally put to paper. But if the story is never finished, there is nothing to save.

Happy writing

Nat

Rejecting rejection?

I’ve been a bit prone to the feel-sorry-for-myself’s recently. While I’m all for a little wallowing in misery, there does come a point when you just start to annoy yourself with the indulgence. I think I’ve got to that point now.

I got the triple-pack of rejections over the past fortnight, and two were for stories I really like. Usually when these two get rejected (ugh, I can say usually) I get personal feedback about which parts the editor liked, and why it is not quite right for their line-up. These most recent rejections were the stock standard ‘dear author’ generic single-sentence replies, so my joie de vivre took a bit of a beating.

As always happens in the minutes following, I spiralled into the ‘why am I doing this’ and let’s not forget; ‘I’m going to give up on this whole writing malarkey.’ But the moment I thought about quitting writing every instinct within me rebelled. I need to write, if I don’t I get grumpy, not to mention that writing is the only way to exorcise my mind of all those ghosts of stories not yet written.

So really this rejection triple has made me realise I’m not questioning the purpose in writing, but in sending it out to publishers. For now I’ll going to keep sending, while I’m still undecided, but don’t be surprised if in the future, especially if the stories start to pour out like some have recently, I might just post them on line (after peer review and editing) and let the world ignore, love or hate them at their own whim. For me writing is about getting read, and how that happens really isn’t of great concern.

Now I’m stamping out the feel-sorry-for-myself’s, I’ve reworked the rejected babies and am sending them on their way. I’m also starting the three stories that have only got as far as a few jotted notes over the past couple of weeks. Being a writer is about writing, not necessarily about being published. I know millions would argue against me, but I think we all need to find our own path, and more and more I’m thinking this is mine.

Books I’ve liked – non-fiction

Even if I wasn’t always doing some kind of research for a story, I would read a lot of non-fiction books. It’s like school without the tests, the early starts and bitchy classroom politics. You learn stuff you didn’t even know you wanted to learn, unlike the internet where you skim over everything that isn’t the answer to your question.

Here are five randomly presented non-fiction books which I have enjoyed, possibly more from a writing/inspiration point of view, but I would have no qualms about recommending any of them.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
This is not for the faint hearted. Not only does it have a lot of gore, but it clamps the sphincter muscle shut with the terror of realising that everything that happens in this book is true. It details incidents where there have been uncontrolled outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever across the world (some in places you would not have expected). The book came out before the movie ‘Outbreak’ and the thousand others of its ilk, but even if you are tired of the genre this book will still chill you more than any of those fictional tales.

The Urantia Book by <unspecified>
I know some will criticise me for putting this in the non-fiction section, but as a spiritual text I will give it the same respect I give all such books. I have to confess that I have not read it all (it is well over 2,000 wafer-thin pages with about a 6 point font) but the chunks I have read are fascinating. It offers not only an alternative view of how the Earth and life began, but also gives us a purpose and place in the universe which is nicely comforting. The book doesn’t ask you to send money, or inspire you to go to war with others, which is always a plus in my eyes, and has some wonderful perspectives on humanity which we could all do well to take on board.

The Answer by John Assaraf & Murray Smith
Yes, there is a bit of a ‘The Secret’ connection, and the book does have a bit of fluff, but don’t let the self-help-ism turn you off. It teaches you some great mental techniques, as well as a basic version of gestalt therapy which I think is quite nicely done (as a qualified hypnotherapist I can say that). The book pulls together a lot of recent research on the brain and presents it in terms that are easy to understand. For the business inclined the second half of the book teaches you some business 101 skills which, in this internet age, we could all probably do with a bit of up-skilling.

Rich Dad Poor Dad (series) by Robert Kiyosaki
Yeah, I know what you are thinking, this one is only marginally better than ‘The Secret’ and if you did an accounting or commerce degree I would agree that you don’t need to read it. For the rest of us, Kiyosaki explains the basics of the fiscal system and how to work within it. I had a vague idea, but this really did teach me the actual mechanics. I wouldn’t necessarily advise you to follow all the investing advice, but I think it is important to educate yourself financially, and if you want your money to grow you need to get it out of the bank. If you don’t know why then you need to read this book (or one like it)!  

The Last Explorer by Simon Nasht
If you are an Australian you need to read this book. If you are a South Australian, you need to BUY this book. This is the true story of the life of explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins and it reads like the next instalment of the Indiana Jones series. I am amazed we don’t have more schools, hospitals, universities and awards named after Sir Hubert, and I was mortified I had never heard of him until I was given this book. Don’t be left in the dark, read the story of this amazing man.

Okay, again I could have kept going far beyond my limit of five, especially with all the amazing biographies I’ve read over the years, but this was just a sample. Please let me know if you have any non-fiction books you think should go on my list of books to read!

Nat

The Meaning of Life

Yes, I know I promised to present five fabulous non-fiction books to you, but I got some good news this week, and I wanted to share it. So you’ll have to wait until Wednesday for the non-fiction reading list I’m afraid.  

The first bit of good news I got was that my flash fiction story entry Jaxon’s Gift gained an ‘honourable mention’ in the Australian Horror Writers Association short story competition! Which means I wasn’t too far off the pace. I’m also pleased to say fellow SuperNOVA member, Tracie McBride, was also honourably mentioned for her short story Slither and Squeeze.

The next bit of good news I got was that my self-(re)published short story Welcome to Midnight finally made it onto the Amazon free list, and in the twenty-four hours following that over 3,500 people downloaded a copy! As of Saturday night it was ranked #42 (hence the title of this blog). And here’s proof;
Amazon Sales Rank

The truth is I don’t know what the book is being ranked against, it could be all ebooks, it could free ebooks, it could be horror/science fiction books, or it could be free horror/science fiction ebooks by authors with surnames beginning with ‘P’. But I don’t care! My other self-published book on Amazon is ranked at a number four digits longer than Welcome to Midnight, so I’m VERY happy with #42!

So thank you to everyone for cheering up what was shaping up to be a bit of a depressing week!

I promise, next post will be the 5 great non-fiction books!

Nat

Books I’ve liked – fiction

There is nothing like public transport to get you reading again. Now that I’m back at work I finally have a great excuse for sitting down and reading for half an hour solid, twice a day. With luck I’ll start to make it through my ever growing pile of books to read.

Having recently asked for recommendations for books, I thought I should also share some books I have enjoyed. As someone who reads equal numbers of fiction and non-fiction books, as well as trying to make my way through the original Angus and Robinson ‘Top 100 books of all time’ I think I am exposed to a wide range of genres and stories, so hopefully you’ll find something in here you will enjoy.

I will not put numbers next to these, as I do not wish to rank them, but here are five fictional books I have very much enjoyed (that’s as much as I can commit to).

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Death narrates this incredibly touching, funny, tragic, innocent and dark story. Set in Nazi Germany, you know that bad things are going to happen, but the characters carry you along so you simply must know where they end up no matter how bad that knowledge might be (you might need a tissue at the end, not good for public transport).

The Second Sons trilogy by Jennifer Fallon
This fantasy series has strong female characters who don’t need rescuing as well as a lot of interesting politics that often gets glossed over in other fantasy books. I also like the comment on our own religion and politics, some comments more subtle than others.

The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck
Such a short, but lovely book. Set in a fictitious war (but not hard to imagine where the inspiration has been drawn from) it depicts the indomitable spirit of man in simple, but beautiful prose. Apparently it was written as a propaganda piece, and I can see where that comes out, but it is still a wonderful book.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
This book is just cool. It goes places I never expected, and so often I’d read a bit and wish that I had written it. Set in an alternative reality, this is almost a murder mystery novel, but the difference is it is fictional characters in books who are getting bumped off. It is a crazy, fun and intelligent novel.

The Long Walk by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
I enjoyed this so much I drew it out over a few days, even though it really is just a novella. Each night I actually dreamed I was participating in the long walk, which shows you how deeply it crept into my subconscious mind. The end is a little disappointing, but the exploration of the human condition under such a hideous, self-inflicted horror is amazing. You can still pick it up in The Bachman Books omnibus, where you can also read The Running Man –a much scarier better version of the story upon which the movie is loosely based.

Okay, that’s five, it kills me to stop there, and I notice I don’t really have any science fiction, but a good showing of Spec Fic so I’ll have to be satisfied with that. Next post I’ll give you five great non-fiction books I have read. I’m sure it will prove to be an equally difficult task to limit myself to just five of those as well.

Scary Stories

UFO Alien Lights

What is it about the scary story that captivates us so much? Love them or hate them, when you find yourself listening, you just can’t turn away. Not only do we love to hear them, but we love to tell them, and this is not limited to the natural story teller, we all have our spooky story to share.

At a recent dinner party a woman in her seventies, not prone to flights of fancy, had us all captivated with her story of driving through Bacchus Marsh one night and being followed by extremely bright lights in the sky (at one point Bacchus Marsh was the Australian UFO hot spot, but she didn’t know this).

We were all rapt, hanging on every word as the hairs on our skin prickled. Her fear glowed as fresh and real as if she had just stepped from the car after the incident now over forty-five years in the past.

Once she had finished her tale we were all momentarily silent, chilled with the sincerity of her retelling. Then, as always seems to happen, the other scary stories around the table surfaced.

It seems we have all had at least one brush with a ghost or unusual lights or phenomenon that just can’t been explained by science, and the best way we can try to understand these experiences is to share them. By turning them over with others we hope to find the truth, and if that remains beyond reach, at least we can find comfort in the sharing of our fear.

So is it any wonder that people are drawn to scary stories; to find that thrill, the excitement, the fear, and come out on the other side unscathed (albeit carrying a few hidden tracking devices we can’t quite remember having inserted). I love scary stories. I love telling them, imagining them and above all, hearing them. No wonder I was always drawn to speculative fiction.