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What Faulkner taught me about memory

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Make no mistake, William Faulkner and I were never 'good friends'.

In fact, by the time I caught wind of Faulkner’s most celebrated work, The Sound and the Fury, the man had been dead almost 50 years.

You could say we didn’t have a lot in common; Faulkner liked horse riding, binge drinking and extra marital affairs. I’ve never even been on a horse, not married, and drinking has never been my strong point. Considering the age gap (82 years), the odds of us ever kindling a bromance were stacked high from the outset.

But had we met, I’d like to think we would have seen eye-to-eye on the subject of memory.

To me, Faulkner was (is?) a writer able to recognise that the past and present aren’t as clearly separated as we’re taught to believe.  In The Sound and the Fury (TSTF), Faulkner collapses the boundary between what’s happening in the present and memories of the past, two concepts of chronology that, via techniques such as flashback and genres like memoir, we’ve come to rely upon being clearly separated.

In TSTF it’s not always evident what’s happening now and what’s a returning memory, which makes for a disorientating journey. And while Faulkner and I might sit across … Read more

The agony of finishing

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The process of finishing off is my least favourite part of writing.

First drafts are a chore, yes, but mostly balanced by the buzz of creation. Revision too can be enjoyable, particularly the point at which sentences come together and characters start behaving somewhat realistically.

But there comes a point in every story where the feedback received is something along the lines of “almost there”. At this point, 90% of the story is solid, and it becomes a balancing act to tweak the remaining 10%. Unfortunately (and unfairly), this last 10% is likely to be the difference between a good and an amazing story.

Finishing off feels risky to me. At the point of ‘finishing off’ I am the closest I have been to submitting, the prospect of diving back in and following some vague promise of amazement is not an easy decision to make.

Going back and finishing off means ‘darlings’ are about to die. Sentences, once fragile and beautiful, will be hammered out and ingloriously dismembered. A complex surgery soon follows, in which pieces of the whole must somehow be stitched back together.

Many darlings will not survive, and though I know it necessary, the decision to sacrifice a great line for some distant hope of an even greater paragraph, … Read more

How Tarantino taught me to be a better thief

Why is it that when Tarantino liberally steals from his favourite kung fu movies he's called 'bold' and 'original', but when I steal I feel like a basket of dirty sheets?

As writers we are often told to steal and steal often from writer’s we admire. This often makes us squeamish, inferior, haunted by the thought that instead of the words ‘bold and original’ embalzoned on our desired cover, we will instead be graced with ‘run of the mill’ or decidedly worse, ‘derivative’.

To the bulk of popcorn patrons, the amount of ‘sampling’ Tarantino does in his movies arguably flys under the radar. But to those who spent, like Tarantino, a good part of their childhood lurking the shelves of video libraries, watching a Tarantino movie can be akin to taking a ride through the ghost mountain of one’s youth. It is, as the video suggests, a megamix of beta bliss.

And yet, despite his sampling, Tarantino is heralded by critics and fans alike as a director who breaks new ground in western cinema, with his flair for dialogue and mastery of pastiche.

What I believe Tarantino does so well, and something for writers to be aware of, is not the act of stealing itself, but in the curation and display of those stolen goods.

For example, if we talk about a sunset, the conversation will get dull pretty quickly. Sunsets … Read more

tools for writers: dropbox

For a while now I’ve been searching for a writers tool that will help me sync documents across multiple computers. I think I may have just seen the light, with online file storage site Dropbox

As my writing habits tend to go, the impulse to put hands to keys (or pen to paper) doesn’t always come in the same spot, at the same time. When I’m out and about, I generally have a notebook with me to scribble ideas down on, but when I’m revising, I’m almost always doing so on a computer.

Thing is, there’s more than one computer in my life.

If I’m writing at work, I generally want to continue right where I left off at home. And if I’m working in the study on my imac, at some point I’ll invariably decide to switch to my laptop and go to the cafe or library. In both of these circumstances I’ve found issues with keeping a single document synced and up-to-date across the multiple devices.

I’m not a newcomer to syncing. I’ve tried Google Docs and a raft of other applications that help store and sync documents online. The problem is, almost invariably the solution requires two … Read more

keeping inspired

Set against the demands of work, relationships, family and friends, writing can seem like a fanciful and selfish pursuit. The grip you once had on a daily writing regime can slip like any other habit built up then suddenly interrupted.

For a time, things go well with my writing, but I am constantly finding new ways to return to the page on a daily or at least weekly basis. Some things stick, but never in the continuous fashion that productive writers talk about. I often feel that all my creative side wants to do is mess around and daydream, and my productive side is ever trying to catch up.

It seems in my life this is partly to do with the focus given to things other than writing. While I realise proof exists that writing can be done, effectively, around other commitments, I also know that each person is different.

For example, I am inherently lazy about prioritising creative output.

So getting back to the point. One of the more successful ways I have found to keep up the momentum is having a regular supply of literature land at my doorstep. This for me, is even more effective than knowing … Read more

The Reader, by the Emerging Writers Festival

Going strong now for over six years, for the first time the Emerging Writers Festival has produced The Reader, a humble collection of insightful dispatches and advice from their 2009 lineup.

Not a reader in the oft-experienced university “photocopy a bunch of articles and bind it with a plastic comb” fashion, the design of The Reader contains more thought and creativity than most novels. The focus on design is consistent throughout, from the striking minimalist cover right through to the interior page layout which is carefully considered for each article.

Contributors range from ‘emerging’ to established writers, poets and journalists commenting on topics such as the ups and downs of freelancing, self promotion, writing practices, editor etiquette, book reviews, research methods, and how to cultivate the perfect author profile pic.

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Of all the ‘how to write’ texts I’ve been exposed to (I think I read more how to write books than actually write), this is the first I have come across that specifically deals with the challenges of the emerging writer. Not just a ‘how to book’, but a venting and steady unveiling of familiar frustrations and triumphs by a collection of writers in positions not too dissimilar from our own.

Each article unfolds as an individual experience of the author’s interaction with the subject matter. So when Clem Bastow talks freelancing, she structures her thoughts via a series of questions … Read more

#writetip: feedly for writers

Five years ago, IT professionals predicted RSS feeds were going to change the future of web browsing. Welcome to that future. Introducing, feedly.

Before the ipad ‘invented’ electronic newspapers, there was Google Reader. Every day millions of people use Google Reader to build virtual newspapers customised to their reading habits. This process is made possible through RSS feeds; a list of article headlines and summaries fed from a website. Such feeds can be subscribed to through any central ‘reader’ application. In this case, Google Reader.

The saturation of blog content has now reached a sweet point where RSS feeds finally seem to make sense to those outside the interweb sanctum. For writers in particular, using RSS through an application like feedly (more on that later) represents an opportunity to refine and improve the online component of the craft, making the web less procrastination and more production.

Why Blogs are Great (really)

Novel writing, for the most part, is a solitary pursuit. Unlike many who participate in a busy office-based profession, novelists don’t get to rock up to a novel workplace each day and have novel conversations with other novelists whilst working on a team novel project with a … Read more

#writetip: how to talk about your unfinished novel

“So what kind of novel are you writing?”

Over the course of writing your novel you will be faced with this question many times. Through politeness, friends and colleagues will take interest in this endeavor you have taken on. To them, saying you are “writing a novel” is akin to saying you are “building a boat”.

Most likely your friends and colleagues will have had no direct connection with anyone who has built a boat or written a novel. To them you are undertaking a ‘novelty challenge’. It makes no sense to write a novel (or build a ship) when there are plenty at hand (or at mooring). Hence you become a curiosity, and the question is asked “What kind of novel are you writing?”

This is a difficult question to answer.

A novel is the end product of writing. You do not “write a novel”. You either “have a novel” or you have pages of words. One does not pick up a cucumber and say they have a salad.

Once you realise this distinction, questions about novels become meaningless. You have no novel. You have pages, but so does papier-mache, and no one ever called a wad of glue … Read more

#writetips: researching

11 days in to my 365 writing challenge and so far so good.

The frequency of returning to the page keeps the novel on my mind, which means even when I’m not physically writing, I’m working through things up top, considering plot structures/developments and characters to try in the next writing session. I found this technique worked really well with my last long piece of fiction; being constantly poised and ready to write.

Predictably, my novel is progressing along a series of sharp bends and u-turns. I started the year with 2 very solid ideas for a novel, and for better or worse, both have developed simultaneously, but in completely unexpected directions. I wonder how long you can keep up 2 novels side by side…

This week I find myself researching present day Iraq as the opening of one novel quickly revealed itself to be a set piece located around the American invasion of Baghdad, and in particular, the initial ‘shock and awe’ campaign that Bush promised Hussein.

Am I interested in Iraq? I wasn’t up until a few days ago.

I recently listened to a podcast (Barnes and Noble Meet the Author – a free Podcast available through … Read more

music to write to

Does anyone else look for music to write to? For me, writing is a very emotional act, and as such, I find my best work comes in sporadic emotional bursts. When I’m in the mood, the writing just seems to flow through me. When I’m not in the mood, the sentences drag by.

One of the ways I try to get into the ‘zone’ is by looking for good music to write to. I find with the right music on in the background my ideas come faster and my prose reacts to the rhythm of the music. This, for me, is a good thing as I tend to match the music I’m listening to to the emotion of the piece I’m trying to write.

I may, at times, have to go back and fix the prose a little to make sure it sounds right sans music (not every reader will have my musical taste). But for the most part, writing to selected music usually results in tighter, more liquid prose.

In a recent story I wrote, City of Birds, I was struggling to write one of the final scenes that required fast, punchy prose with a hint of the … Read more

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