Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas, Something cool I made, plus a book...

Hi Everyone,

I've been on holidays from everything for the last two weeks - including the blog (not that that probably made a noticeable difference, given my consistency here this year...), but I wanted to pop by quickly and say a happy pre-emptive Christmas, and to show off a couple of things.

We like Christmas in our house, but this year, with a 3 year old who is suddenly really understanding lots of concepts like 'Father Christmas' and 'Presents', it's proving more fun than ever. So much so, that I've spent a good chunk of this week down in my shed making him this hobby horse:

I'm really proud of it. I made it from scratch, working without plans or a template, apart from doing a bit of googling and stealing several ideas from several different pictures on line. I love working with wood - there's something ineffably theraputic about it, I think. It also gave me an excuse to buy myself the hand router that I've been wanting for about five years....

My other little bit of book related news arrived in a postpack from UQP today. I mentioned earlier this year that I'd been re-reading my 2001 novel A New Kind of Dreaming ahead of a new edition. Well, the new edition is done, and it looks just great!

Actually, I'm pretty happy to see this book all dressed up and updated. It's been a consistent performer for me for a decade now, and it's still one of the books I'm proudest of. I wrote ANKOD at a very different time in my life, when I was very, very pissed off about a lot of things, and trying to work out how I felt about them. I also wrote it at the same time as the whole issue of boat refugees was being really politicised for the first time, and I'm pleased (though also rather sad) that it still reads as fresh and relevent today as it did back when I wrote it in the late 1990's.

Anyway, that's my little pre-christmas contribution. I'm planning to bash out something else next week, but before then I hope you all have a lovely, restful and joyous Christmas.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

(Not so secret) Agent!

so I guess that if I'm going to maintain my spectacular 2-posts-per-month average, then I better get something done here this afternoon…

As you may have gathered from the ongoing drought of blog posts here, I'm keeping as busy as ever of late. Tomorrow, for example, I'm heading up to Sydney for the day to run an all-day masterclass with the students at Sydney Girls High School, concentrating on tips and tricks for writing character (make them real, put a piece of yourself into every character, find the ‘truth’ in every character, make sure they have a relationship with the environment of the story… and so on)

I've also, of course, been buried in a veritable pile of marking for the last couple of weeks.

Oh, and (unbelievably) Toby turned 3 last week. This event was heralded by several parties, a trip up Black Mountain tower, a really quite ludicrous number of presents, more sugar than a 3-year-old's system can reasonably handle, one incredibly over-catered barbecue lunch, and two exhausted and somewhat confused parents asking themselves; “where on earth did the last 3 years of our lives disappear to?"

And, in the midst of all that, I do actually have a bit of writing related news.

You might remember me mentioning a while ago that I finally finished my most recent book. (Of course you remember, the damn thing has taken close to 2 years, and during that time I've been constantly banging on about it being ‘almost finished’.)

You might also remember me mentioning that this time, instead of pitching it to publishers myself, I had decided to submit it to a literary agent in New York to see if they were interested in representing it (and me).

Well I'm pleased to be able to announce that they liked it. So much so in fact that I'm now happily represented by Cheryl Pientka, of Jill Grinberg Literary Management! I don't mind admitting how thrilled, and completely surprised, I was to get such a positive response from Cheryl and Jill, as during the nerve-wracking wait for a response from them I managed, pretty effectively, to convince myself that the book had no merit whatsoever. I'm also excited because my new managers handle a lot of Australian writers, including several of my friends. (Actually, I owe a huge thanks to Melina Marchetta, who did the introducing here…)

And that's where I'm at. Early in the new year I expect to be launching myself back into The Hunter, and among the other things keeping me busy at the moment is the detailed planning and mapping out of the next 3 books in the series, which I should start writing in January.

In the meantime, I have a keynote speech to write, my teaching and grading for this semester to finalise, and then in a couple of weeks the family and I are off to Perth for holidays and weddings (not ours, obviously, we did that a while ago, now.)

So that's my news, and my litany of excuses for not keeping you all up-to-date. Hope everything is good with everyone who reads this (that is, of course, assuming I have any readers left), and that you are managing to ease your way into the festive season with a minimum of stress.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Going 'Live'...

You may have noticed something of a drop-off in the number of posts I've managed to put up here in the last couple of months. There are many, various, and largely uninteresting reasons for this, most of which don't bear discussion.

One of the contributing factors, though, is the fact that the special edition of the British Journal Write4Children which I have been putting together for the last 12 months (and which I believe I've mentioned here just once or twice) was due for publication at the start of November.

This, of course, meant that the last few weeks have been an ungodly world of proofreading, editing, chasing up small details, and compiling the finished journal. Hence, in part, by prolonged absence here at Musings…

But, I'm glad to say, it's all done now and the special edition went live in the middle of the night earlier this week. (For those of you who are about to click the link, it's volume 3, number 1)

I also have to say that (despite swearing several times during the process that I would never do this again) it's definitely all been worth it. I'm really thrilled at the end result, and everyone who contributed to the edition worked so hard to get it up and running (and, to everyone's surprise - especially mine - published on time!)

There are, I think (though as editor, I would) some fantastic papers in the edition. I was particularly thrilled to receive abstracts from a number of really fantastic Australian writers, as well as practising academics in the field of children's writing, and the topics explored in the edition are as diverse and wide ranging as Australian children's writing itself. Among the offerings you will find in the edition are a fantastic paper by Lucy Christopher on Stolen, one by Lili Wilkinson on her novel Pink, Rosanne Hawke discussing the role of faith in several of her books, but most notably Marrying Amira, Mark Carthew talking about Australian poetry – and paying particular attention to the state of publishing poetry for children, Kate Deller-Evans on the rising prominence of junior verse novels in Australia , and a really interesting piece by Anna Kurian from the University of Hyderabad, which takes you into the booming world of writing and publishing young adult fiction in India. For the foodies amongst you there is also a really fascinating paper by Donna Lee Brien and Adele Wessell documenting the history and impact of cookbooks written for children in Australia from the earliest colonial days through the junior Masterchef.

All in all, putting this together has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career (such as it is) to date. One of the things I didn't expect was the buzz that I would get from gathering together such an interesting and diverse range of writing, having it all peer-reviewed, and in putting out into the public are. It was also a really interesting experience for me to sit on the editorial side of the desk, and experience life on the other side. I've also made a number of really interesting new friends in the process, including Andy* and Vanessa, the journal founders and editors who were brave enough (or, depending on your perspective, silly enough) to hand their baby over to my care for a while.

In any case, now that's out of the way I'm hoping to get back to a little bit of writing and, of course, in a week marking season begins!

*who also has a very cool blog somewhere on blogger, which for some bizarre reason I can't seem to find at the moment, but will update this link when I do...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sunset Kangaroo - University of Canberra.

One of the things I love about UC is that we have a couple of large mobs of kangaroos living on the campus. I took this photo just outside my office last night, on my way out the door.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Text, and the City

I know, I know… another fortnight between posts. Sorry.

But at least this time I have an interesting enough excuse. I've been doing research. Not, I hasten to add, the boring ‘reading lots of stuff out of books’ type research, but honest-to-goodness hands-on interactive FIELD research.

For about a year now me and 3 of my colleagues have been working on a project to try and find out how people interact with text when it is presented to them in unusual forms, and also to explore people's reactions to the idea of a city (any city, but in this case Canberra) when I asked to respond to it using writing, and in creative ways. Because we are highly imaginative, and creative people, we called a project ‘Text And The City’ and last weekend, which was a public holiday weekend here in the ACT, 12 months of fairly intensive planning finally came together.

To gather our data we built the word TEXT in 3 m high letters, which we then painted from top to bottom with blackboard paint. Into each letter was built an iPad and wireless keyboard which people could use to respond to a series of small questionnaires, each of which asked them to think about, and write about, Canberra in a fun and creative manner. At the same time, anyone who didn't want to use this most contemporary form of text, could use one of the most old-fashioned – we had plenty of chalk on hand for both children and adults alike to scrawl whatever they wanted onto our enormous letters.

And last weekend, we were lucky enough to get permission to run a program at floriade – the annual flower show held in Canberra, the biggest in Australia, and a highlight of the ACT calendar. As a result, we got heaps of responses from all kinds of people; from children to adults, locals to tourists, overseas visitors, teenagers, the elderly, the whole spectrum. And by the end of the day, our enormous letters looked fantastic – covered in all kinds of diverse and interesting graffiti (which, of course, we photographed obsessively).

Even the rain, which threatened to derail the project all weekend, proved not to be a major hurdle, and even though the combined weight of the letters and all of our equipment was probably something in the order of half a tonne, which we had to set up and pulled down each day, the end result was fantastic. it was lovely watching people interacting with our installation, getting right into the survey, and gradually across the course of the day turning our big TEXT into a living work of art.

So that's what I've been doing (among other things, but that's another story) for the last week or so. Now, naturally, I'm desperately trying to catch up on all the other aspects of my life which have been on hold while we've been doing text and the city. Hopefully I'll have some more news and interesting bits and pieces to write about here in the next week or so.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

So long Sara, and thanks...

On Monday morning, at 5 AM, Australian fantasy writer Sara Douglass died. I have spent the last couple days, among other things, trying to work out exactly how to respond to this incredibly sad event. I never met Sara, But it's fair to say that of all the Australian writers whose work has had an enormous influence upon my own writing, Sara Douglass would be right up there near the top of the list.

Sara's Crucible Trilogy remain to this day arguably the finest historical fantasy books I have ever read. Reading them – and I can particularly remember this in relation to the first book in that series, The Nameless Day – had a profound effect on the way I think about so many things; History, fantasy, narrative, the entire craft of writing and what I do, really. One of my ambitions ever since reading that particular trilogy has been to write something just a fraction as good, As engaging, as immediate and clever. Here: this is what I'm talking about;
Wynkyn de Worde had undertaken the journey between Rome and Nuremberg over one hundred times in the past fifty or so years, but never had he done so before with such a heavy heart. He had been twenty three in 1296 when the then Pope, the great Boniface VIII, had sent him north for the first time.
Twenty-three, and entrusted with a secret so horrifying, that it, and the nightmarish responsibility it carried with it, would have killed most other men. But Wynkyn was a special man, strong and dedicated, sure of the right of God, and with a faith so unshakeable that Boniface understood why the Angels had selected him as the man fit to oversee the Cleft.
“Reveal the secret to any other man," Boniface had told the young Dominican, “and you can be sure that the angels themselves will ensure your death."
- The Nameless Day, p.3
For me, that short passage (and it's only one of quite literally hundreds I could have chosen from just about any of Sara's books) catches beautifully what Sara did – she knew her characters so well, and her readers, and she had the most deft ability to bring both of them together so quickly, so engagingly, that her writing seemed just effortless.

When the news came through the other morning, and even though it was not unexpected, I still sat, shocked and quiet in my office at work with a sudden, quite profound sense of loss, as though the world was suddenly a much poorer place.

As I say, I never met Sara, and yet like so many other readers around the world hers was a life that did intersect with mine, and I am so much the richer for the experience.

My heart goes out to everyone who knew and cared for Sara Douglass, especially my very good friends Karen and Steve who I know will be feeling this loss with every fibre of their being.

So thank you Sara – for the stories, the characters, for your love of narrative and your profound understanding of human nature, which came through in every word you wrote. Tomorrow afternoon, as requested, I'll definitely raise a glass in your honour.

Monday, September 19, 2011

So, you thought I was dead?

I'm not. And I won't bore you with the usual litany of excuses. Since last we spoke, I've been keeping myself busy ticking my annual performance review boxes at work, getting a new writing project underway, learning to drive my voice recognition software properly, teaching, riding horses, gardening (spring has finally sprung here in Canberra, which means that the weeds in our garden are now as high as an elephant's eye and climbing by the day) and – most importantly, as far as this blog is concerned - finishing the rewrite of The Hunter.

And a couple of hours ago, finally, I got it done. I'm really happy with it, but of course finishing a presentable draft is just the beginning of the hard work. About half an hour ago I dropped it, along with a letter of introduction and a plot synopsis, into an envelope and posted it off to a New York literary agent to whom I was recently introduced. Now it's a matter of waiting and seeing if she's interested in it enough to sign me up.

It's funny – this is the first time in over a decade that I've had to physically post my book off to someone with no guarantee of it being well received, or even published. I'd almost forgotten how odd and disconcerting the very real possibility of rejection can be.

Of course, given that I spend half my life telling my students at uni (and anyone else who will listen) that learning to take criticism and to deal with rejection is one of the key skills of being a writer, I'm really in no position to complain.

Still, I'll admit that as I dropped the envelope (with $14.80 worth of stamps on it) into the post box, there was an odd little butterfly in the pit of my stomach – an heady combination of nervousness, but also excitement; of the unpredictable, and the unknown. Who knows what's going to happen as a result of my decision to send his book straight overseas to an agent, rather than doing what I've always done and taking it directly to my publishers here in Australia? (I should add here that my reasons for making this decision are nothing to do with my publishers – I love my publishers, and they have done some fantastic things with my back catalogue in recent months – but I think I am at a point in my writing career where it is time to take a broader look at how I do things.)

So, anyway – that's where I'm at. The book (or, at least, the first 50 pages of it) is now irretrievably on its way to New York, and I can get on with writing the second one and try not to be too nervous in the meantime.

And, hopefully, with getting a few more blog posts done and re-engaging with all my mates in the twitterverse.

Friday, August 26, 2011

We Never Talk Any more (well, actually, we do…)

So I mentioned last week that I recently purchased voice recognition software for my computer. I've had it for just over a week now, and I think it's safe to say that it's pretty nifty. In fact, I'm writing this while leaning against the bookcase on the far side of my office from my computer. If I wanted to (though I'm not sure why I would) I could probably even write from the men's toilets across the corridor. It's… liberating.

I got the idea, as I mentioned last week, from John Birmingham who has written the last couple of his books using the same software. I read an interview with him in which he discussed the impact that it had on his writing productivity and I thought to myself “well, if it's good enough for Birmingham, it's good enough for me!"

So I've spent the last week, quite literally, talking to myself. I have it on good authority that the other people in my building are starting to wonder exactly what's going on here in my office. Not that a writer talking to himself should be news to anyone. I think it's fair to say that my computer and I are only now, after almost 2 years together, just getting to know one another.

And, like any relationship, we've had our ups and downs in the last week. While for the most part my MacBook is remarkably attentive, there have been a few times when I just can't escape the feeling that it's just not listening!

Take this morning, for example. Having just finished my firrst close edit of The Hunter, and with my head still in the story, I decided it was time to make the best use of my new toy, (and also an opportune time to put off reading any more of the 190 odd grant applications that I have to get through before next week) to start writing the 2nd book in the Orion series.

I duly fired up Scrivner, spent a very pleasant half an hour mapping out plot points and chapters, And then, excitedly, I donned my headset.

“Okay, here we go!" I thought. “A new chapter in my writing life. It's all sweet from here."

And it was. That is, at least until I came to the word “dared", (which, FYI, I just had to spell out manually) Whereupon my computer decided that no matter what my opinion was on the matter, it wasn't going to come to the party. here, I'll show you…

He ran as fast as he did.
He ran as fast as he did.
He ran as fast as he died.
He ran as fast as he daredevil.
He ran as fast as the daring.
He ran as fast as he dead.
He ran as fast as the dead.

That should give you some idea of the problem. I tried every trick in the book; I opened up the program's vocabulary editor, found the problematic word, spent the next 5 min “training" the program and, when I went back to my book, it made no difference whatsoever; “He ran as fast as he Darren" it told me.

So, that's where we are at. For the most part I'm loving being liberated from my keyboard, and the fact that I managed to bash out just under 1000 words in just a little under half an hour is, let's face it, fantastic. But I'd be lying if I pretended that it was all smooth sailing: As well as having issues with "dared"* it also has a couple of other little habits which irritate the life out of me—automatically inserting numerals instead of spelling out numbers, for example. Still, I'm hoping that as the weeks and months progress and as my computer learns not just to recognise the sound of my voice but to love it, but these little issues will become fewer, and fewer.

It's worth a try, anyway.

Because, as they say; “only the dialling succeed!'

* just had to spell it out again, in case you were wondering.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Much better now, thanks for asking...

Hi everyone,

Firstly, thanks so much for all the lovely messages of support after my bleak and depressing post from last week. You'll be pleased to know that I've managed to come through my little meltdown and am feeling much happier and more like my usual self now.

On which note I did promise that I would post something this week and, well, here we are.

Actually, in the midst of all the last week's bleakness, I did have one particularly interesting experience. I'm pleased to say that early next year the lovely people at UQP have decided to repackage my second novel “a New Kind Of Dreaming" with a spanking new cover and all-new internals.

This, of course, means that I got the oddly pleasurable task of re-proofreading the book. As a general rule, once my books are finished, I tend to send about into the big wide world without so much as a second glance. Certainly I don't think I've ever actually sat down and re-read any of my books after publication-at least not from cover to cover. So was a weird feeling to settle down last week with a story I'd written over a decade earlier, right the very start of my writing career.

It was rather strange and for the first few pages I found myself spotting things that I would gladly change if given half a chance. But of course, that wasn't the point. The point of this particular proofreading was simply to pick up on any typos which may have crept through from the original edition.

What struck me most about reading the proofs, though, was how oddly different the book seemed. The version of “A New Kind Of Dreaming" in my mind didn't at all add up with the version on the pages. The book in my memory was, somehow, fundamentally different. It's hard to pin down exactly why or how, but I couldn't shake off this odd feeling of cognitive dissonance as I work through the pages of the new edition.

Don't get me wrong though, I'm still incredibly proud of the book. It's something I wrote when I was in a very different place in my life, when I was politically very angry, and which really says a lot about both who I was and who I am today. But working through the proofs last week, it felt like reading someone else's book.

So that's my little observation for this week. Not sure if it means anything though it probably does.

And also, if this post seems a little disjointed, it's because I'm “writing" it using my fun new voice recognition software which, inspired by John Birmingham, I've gone out and gotten for myself. This is in part to increase my productivity, and also because, quite frankly, sitting at a desk in front of a screen all day was playing havoc on my back. It's kind of strange talking on my computer, but I suspect I'm going to get to like this. I'll keep you posted.

In any case, thanks again for all the support last week it really made a difference.


Friday, August 12, 2011


Sometimes the words just won't come to life.

On the page, in the head, on the screen.

This is where I've been for the last couple of weeks. Feeling flat.

It's happened to me a couple of times before in my creative life; periods where no matter what I do, how hard I try, I just can't make myself interested. Can't make myself interested in the stories, in playing with the words, in the ideas, in writing, even in other people's writing.

Just. Plain. Flat.

And so I disconnect, and let the words lie fallow for a while.

This, in case you haven't worked it out already, is why there's been this big black hole of silence here for the last fortnight. It's not that I haven't wanted to put some posts up, not even that I haven't had ideas of stuff to post. Just that when I go to do it, I find myself feeling... flat.

It's the same with my books. I've had the draft of The Hunter sitting, half-edited, on my desk for over a month now, and every time I pick the damn thing up, and grab my pencil, I just get a few lines worked then then... flat.

And writing. I've got two big ideas that I want to work on at the moment. Both of them things I've been keen to write for ages. Both of them ideas that I've spent hours and hours thinking about, planning, anticipating.

Both of them, currently, seem like an utter waste of time and energy.

Like I say. Flat.

Still, it will pass. These things always do. Next week the teaching semester begins again and, like it or not, I'll be pulled back into the world of words, and hopefully it'll make a few of my own words rise up of the page, take on a bit of form and function and perspective. Take on some depth.

Wow. What a depressing post. Sorry for pouring all my flat out onto you like that.

Still, if it's any consolation, I'm feeling a little bumpy now. Slightly hummocked. Ruffled, even. This bleak post has more body to it than anything I've bashed out in a month.

Which is probably a good thing.

So thank for reading. See you all here next week.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Just a Quick One...

I'm home from Noumea, where Min and Toby and I had a wonderful holiday. Unfortunately I've managed to come down with a shocking head cold, and awful backlog of work, so here, just to keep you all envious, is a photo of Toby playing on the beach that I took last week...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Something New and Purty....

I've been kinda itching to tell you all about this for a while, but wanted to wait until it was all official and stuff...

I'm pleased to say that there'll be a new edition of Into White Silence coming out a little later on this year - with all sorts of spanky new features (well, a new cover, at least, and in a nice big 'C' format)

And the first shiny happy copies dropped into my mailbox while I was up in Brisbane last week. So I'm pleased to be able to share the cover with you all now...

It's also going to be available as an e-book, so if you (like me) are embracing the digital reading revolution, then you can enjoy it on your e-reader of choice.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pulling Books Apart

Sorry for the long silence. This is a recording....

I've been nose to the grindstone since getting back from Perth the other week, busily beavering away at the paper I delivered at the biennial IRSCL congress in Brisbane yesterday*. I looked at Coraline and The Graveyard Book, both by the wonderful Neil Gaiman, and examined the construction of family within them.**

So, of course, I've had to give both books a very close reading. My copy of Coraline has so many little yellow post it notes attached that it looks rather like a very odd sunflower. And The Graveyard book is even worse. For me, at least, a 'close reading' involves going through the book, pencil in hand, and literally reading it on a sentence-by-sentence basis, considering issues of construction and meaning behind pretty much every word.

All this has, of course, got me thinking...

During my visit to Perth the other week, two different people, both writers I respect enormously, told me how much they dislike academics who read into their books ideas and meanings that they never intended to be there in the first place. And I have to admit that I've read a few analytical comments about my own books in scholarly papers and had to fight the urge to bang off a quick email to the author.

But one of the central principles of literary analysis - and it's as constructed an idea as every other in the field - is that the meaning a reader, any reader - even a theory-obsessed academic -brings to a book is as valid, if not more valid, than the meaning that the author intended. There's also an argument to be made from an analytical perspective that authors are perhaps the least qualified people to comment upon the underlying social meanings that inform their writing.***

In any case, to get back to the central point of this post, one of the chief comments that writing students (and other writers) often make about having to do very close readings of books is that it can 'kill the enjoyment of the book for me'. The idea being that, in having to analyse a creative work so minutely, you lose sight of the overall beauty of it and that, in turn, doesn't help improve your writing. It's an argument I've heard a few times over the years.

And I have to say - speaking only for myself, of course - it's an argument I just can't agree with. Stephen King points out that 'if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write', and I think you can take this a step further and argue that the more closely you allow yourself to engage with the words of other writers, the more you understand, at both a conscious and unconscious level, about your own writing.

If anything else, for me the process of doing a close reading only heightens my appreciation of other writers' works and my admiration of their skills. Seeing how the placement of a single word in the right place and time can frame up the rest of a story without you (the reader) realising it always gives me something of a thrill.

I'll give you an example from my paper -

Take Gaiman's The Graveyard Book - one of my favourite books. I've read it countless times, including the close reading I did for this paper. One of the things I picked up on when looking at the book was this, the fourth sentence of the novel, right on the first page...
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
There are a whole lot of things in that sentence that are really interesting in terms of my paper, but one thing that really got me is the power behind one little word there; 'almost'. As soon as you read that word you know - you just know in the back of your head - that until the knife has completed its work, one way or another, that the world is going to be a dangerous place. The word 'almost' implies such a strong sense of incompleteness, of tasks left hanging and unaccomplished, that the reader is immedately - just four sentences into the story - feeling unsettled and uneasy.

And for me, as both a writer and a reader, understanding something like that doesn't in any way diminish my capacity to enjoy the book. If anything, it heightens it. I still get all teary at the end of The Graveyard Book, perhaps even moreso now than the first time I read it.

And of course, this raises the question of whether or not Neil Gaiman deliberately placed that little word, 'almost' there to achieve that effect, or whether it's just a happy co-incidence, or whether I'm simply reading far too much into the book.

In all honesty, I suspect the answer to that question is: 'yes'. My feeling is that Neil Gaiman is far too accomplished a craftsman to not be aware, at some level, of the impact of every single word in his stories. I know I've had long discussions with my editors over the placement of individual words on many occasions.

I also know, from personal experience, that often the decision as to which words to include or not include aren't made on a conscious level, but are made in an instant - a hundredth of a second - at some instinctual level while you're writing, but that doesn't mean that you're not still making them.

And I also know - regardless of what Neil Gaiman himself intended - the effect that word 'almost' has upon me, as both a reader, a student of writing, and a practitioner of it. And at that one, Neil Gaiman's intentions (with all due respect to the man) become irrelevent.

So for me, at least, pulling books apart is part of the joy of reading them.

*A conference which has, to this point, had many highlights, one of which was me stepping into a duckpond up to my waist while walking through the botanical gardens on my way to catch the train to the airport to come home last night. Luckily I had spare clothes in my backpack. And enough money on me to afford a new pair of shoes on my way through town...

**I could, at this point, bang on using words and phrases like 'unravelling the liminal spaces', and 'transgressions of thresholds' and 'Freudian signifiers of the heimlich and unheimlich' and 'Lacanian o/Other' but, trust me, you've got better things to do with your life...

*** Though that's a whole other blog post...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Youth Literature Days...

Today I'm halfway through my stay at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre, and it's been a great week, if a busy one. I've been presenting as part of the FCLC's series of Youth Literature Days, which are always full on, but fantastic fun.

I was lucky enough, back in about 2003 or 4, to be involved in the setting up of the first Youth Lit Days (or YLD's, as they shall henceforth be known), and it's a program that I'll happily keep coming back for. I think it's pretty safe to say that there's nothing else like it in Australia.

Once each term, groups of students between years 9-12 meet up at the centre and spend a day working and writing together. The days are mentored by various writers - the groups I've been working with this week have, for example, worked so far with people like Markus Zusak, Bridget Lowry, James Roy, Julia Lawrinson and heaps of others. Next term they've got Isobelle Carmody coming and in term 4, Simon Higgins.

YLD's tend to be a sort of win-win situation for all involved; the students selected (the criteria for selection is that you have to be interested and committed to writing. That's all. Grades etc... aren't important, just a love of putting words on pages) get the opportunity to work with some amazing and diverse writers, they get exposed to different ways of thinking about writing and stories, and different ways of approaching the various parts of the writing process. The writers, for their part, get to work with big groups of bright, motivated young writers, all of whom have actively chosen to be part of the program. From my point of view, I come out of YLD's really tired, but refreshed and excited.

And some of the writing produced... wow!

So that's how I'm spending my week. This week I've been doing days at the Centre in Fremantle with groups in their first and second years of the program. Next monday I'm doing one last day at the centre with a group who've been coming for four years now, and then Leslie (the centre director) and I head down south to Bunbury for a few days down there.

I can't help but wish there'd been something like this around when I was a teenager - would have been just the sort of thing I'd have loved. Still, at least I get to be involved with them now.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Off we go again...

So, I'm sitting here in the main reading room of the National Library of Australia, waiting for a book to come up from the stacks, so that I can not embarrass myself at the IRSCL Conference I'm speaking at in Brisbane in July. I won't pretend I'm not a little nervous about this paper, for a whole pile of reasons that I'm not going to go into right at the moment, but I'm sure that when this particular book* pops out of the little hatchway things will get a lot better.

I hope.

Still, on the upside, the 20 minute wait between logging a book request and having it appear on the shelves gives me a chance to pop over here and post a long overdue blog.

Since last we spoke, I've been buried in writing stuff. I've also had the printout of The Hunter** sitting on the coffee table in my office, staring accusingly at me, and quite literally whispering "edit me... you know you want to...." into the back of my mind*** I'm really hanging out to get my red pen out and start slashing away, but am restraining myself until I'm in Perth next week, because editing is just the perfect way to fill the evenings while away from home.

On the subject of which, I'm about to head over for a couple of weeks at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre, which is just one of my favourite places in the world to work. I'll be doing a series of their Youth Literature Days, which are always fantastic. Also talking at the WA State Librarians Conference this saturday, and doing some sessions with the lovely Coral Tulloch (who is almost wholly responsible for encouraging me to go to Antarctica a few years back) at the FCLC open day on Sunday 19th June. If you're in Fremantle, and near the centre, please do come on by and say G'Day.

Then I'm home again for a week, which will doubtless be spent bashing out the rest of the paper which has currently got me sitting at the NLA, then up to Brisbane for the IRSCL, then back for a week, then off to Noumea for a week of (Shock! Horror!) ACTUAL HOLIDAYS!

So I'm keeping busy.

In the meantime, there've been all sorts of things I've wanted to blog about, including this incredibly stupid article from the Wall Street Journal, which rests upon all sorts of broad generalisations, and provides a fantastic example of how to cherry pick a genre in order to prove your (uninformed) point, but sadly time has gotten away from me, and all sorts of other bloggers have done a nice job of unpacking the piece, in any case.

I also recently read up a whole lot about Mary E. Patchett, and specifically her 1953 book Ajax the Warrior as the foundation for a book chapter I was invited to put together. It was a fascinating little journey into one of the little known byways of Australian Literary History.

In any case, the trolley has just popped out with a whole pile of books on it including, I suspect, the one I'm waiting for, so I'm off to be a happy little researcher for the next little while.

*New World Orders in Contemporary Children's Fiction, by Bradford, Mallan and Stephens, (2008), just in case you were wondering....
** Formerly known as Orion, but I've changed the title.
*** Actually, this might not in fact be true. I've been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately, and I suspect it's messing with my subconscious....

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stumbling Over the Finishing Line

So I've been a little quiet of late. That's largely due to the usual end-of-semester marking frenzy, and also a trip to Sydney last weekend.

But, that's not what I'm here to talk about. I've got bigger news.


Thank God.

Sure, when I started it, my plan was for it to take six months (it's only 55,000 words, after all, how long can that take?) and it's ended up taking almost bang on eighteen. And during that time it's felt like a complete monkey on my back.

But now, it's done. And I've got a nice warm pile of paper, hot off the printers, sitting here on the table beside me, just waiting for me to launch into it with a red pen, and start slicing the crap (of which there is an abundance) out of it.

This, for those of you who've been silly enough to hang around here for the last year and a half, is my action / adventure book. It's different to all my other stuff. It's faster paced. Sillier. And has been a lot of fun to write. It's also intended to be the first of a series of (probably) four or five books. Which means that I'm really going to have to speed up my output a little, I suspect.

It's a strange feeling, finishing the first draft. There's an odd mixture of elation and relief, in equal parts. I've now got this big blank(ish) space looming in front of me, which I can fill with all sorts of other projects and ideas. I'll be able to sleep at night without worrying about this book possibly never being completed. And, of course, I've got to start editing it, now, which is where the fun really starts. Particularly for a book that's been written in as many fits and starts as this one.

Still, it's done. And soon, I might need some proofreaders. 13 - 16 year old guys with a penchant for action would be ideal.

Volunteers, anyone?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Oh where, oh where did the last decade go?

So I turned 39 last Saturday. I've been meaning t0 put this post up ever since, but - and this pretty much sums up the topic of this particular post - I've just plain been too busy. You can see my space filler of a post last week if you want the details*

But, as is the way with these things, I did get a little reflective over the weekend. Not least because I read this column here, by Aussie author and all-round-nice-person Bec Sparrow, hard upon the heels of having a long conversation with Min along the lines of 'what the hell happened to my 30's?'

Because, I'll be honest, I feel as though my 20's lasted about a decade, and my 30's roughly 5 minutes.

Still, when you do some comparative analysis** I think there's a pretty clear answer as to why.

During my 20's I:
  • Rowed Boats
  • Did Triathlons
  • Trained for rowing and triathlons.
  • Taught
  • Had relationships which lasted no longer than 6 months.
  • Sailed on a tall ship twice a year.
  • (Towards the end) wrote 1 book.
And that's about it, really. Now, let's look at the intervening 9(ish) years.

During my 30's I:
  • Wrote a book
  • Changed career
  • Moved interstate
  • Wrote another book
  • Moved back interstate
  • Got engaged
  • Wrote another book
  • Started a PhD
  • Wrote another book
  • Maintained a touring schedule which kept me away from home roughly 3 months out of every year.
  • Wrote another book
  • Got married
  • Bought an old run down house
  • Renovated old run down house
  • Finished PhD
  • Went to Antarctica
  • Wrote another book
  • Moved interstate.
  • Wrote another book
  • Bought another house
  • Sold renovated house
  • Wrote another book
  • Changed career (again)
  • Gave up touring schedule
  • Became a father
  • Wrote another book.
So, all things considered, I'm not overly surprised that I feel as though I missed a few years there. I've been - as has been mentioned on this blog a few times - rather busy.

It's really funny, though - I can remember being a teenager and wondering what my life would be like when I was 30. It's safe to say that I was pretty much incorrect on all counts. Now I'm 39, in the third year of my current career, and working incredibly hard to build up my research and academic profile. My writing career is ticking along nicely enough, even if I'm not getting nearly the writing time I'd like. And my family - both my immediate and extended family - continues to be the absolute joy of my life.***

Which is not a bad way to have spent a decade, in my opinion.

Even if I can't remember most of it...

* Nothing's changed...
** And let's face it, I'm a literary studies academic. Comparative analysis is what it's all about.
*** On that, I also became an uncle again last weekend. Birthday. Unclehood. A good weekend...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Just to Clarify...

...I'm not dead. Nor in a coma. Just horribly, horribly, horribly busy.

Last week I got to the point where I had so much stuff on my plate that I got a bit, well, I guess 'paralysed' is probably the best way to describe it. For a couple of days there, I felt like I was going backwards with just about everything, with the result that a lot of things got pretty much dropped from my agenda. Like blogging, for example.

But I'm slowly getting back on top of things again now - my marking is - touch wood - almost done* I've only got four more lectures and one more class to deliver, and that's my teaching finished for the semester. Then I've got another insane amount of marking to get through, but such is life... I've got a book chapter and a conference paper to get written before the 10th of June, when I head off to Perth for three weeks work at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre. Most of the papers for the journal I'm editing have come in, and so I'm in the process of chasing up peer reviewers for them. Three weeks ago, Melina Marchetta came and worked with our students at UC, and was *fantastic*. Last week we hosted Easter lunch for our extended Canberra family - all 11 of them - in our backyard. We also dyed eggs, using traditional wax and dyes, which was great fun. I'll admit that I watched most of the Royal Wedding, but went to bed before they went driving in Prince Charles' Aston Martin, which was probably the most interesting part of the whole thing. Toby is sleeping through the nights. Last night I cooked rosemary smoked ribs in the Weber. This morning I got to ride a nice little pony named Woody, and together we did some lovely canter transitions, and also trotted in spirals, which was a lot of fun. While I was doing that, Obama was announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden. I'm not unhappy about the fact that he's been chased down, but the degree of enthusiasm in some of the celebrations are making me slightly uncomfortable. I've never liked the idea of retribution as a cause for celebration. Not for anyone. Even Bin Laden.


So, that's about that.

I'm hoping to have life more or less back under control by the end of this week, and so I'll hopefully have the energy to put a bit of time and thought into some decent blog posts.

In the meantime, thanks for your patience.

*this despite my stupid bloody version of MS Word for Mac freezing up randomly every couple of hours, and forcing me to lose up to 40 minutes of work at a time**
** Yes, I know about saving my work as I go. But, you know, sometimes you just forget. And those are almost inevetably the ones where my machine decides to give me the wheel of death...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Being Notable...

Just time to bash out a quick post before the midday announcement of the Children's Book Council of Australia's annual 'Book of the Year' shortlist.

I found out about half an hour ago that my book 'Daywards' has made the list of 2010's Notable Books, which puts it in contention for the shortlist (though I'll be honest and declare that I think it's probably an outsider) alongside some lovely people and fantastic writers. Michael Pryor, Melina Marchetta, James Roy, Cassandra Golds, Kirsty Murray, Scottie Gardner, Cath Crowley, Randa Abdel-Fatah and lots of others. Whatever happens fifteen minutes from now, it's really lovely to see my book on the same list as all theirs and before they make the big announcementI just wanted to say congratulations to all of the notable writers. I couldn't hope to be in better company.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Happy Birthday to Us!

It might have been 20 years ago today that Sergent Pepper taught his men to play *, but it was 2 years ago tomorrow (which is, of course, a screen free saturday, so no blogging for me then...) that I sat down at my computer here at UC and decided, on a whim as much as anything else, to start a blog. And while my first post over at Goodreads wasn't exactly a work of online genius, more a tribute to my digital incompetence, at least it was the start of something.

And look at the dizzying heights the last two years have seen us soar to - 173 posts! (A good percentage of them about Toby) 27 followers! Occasional comments! Number 75 on the list of the Top 50 Australian Writing Blogs!** Entire fortnights passing with no posts! Months with posts every day! Strident criticism of the opposition! Strident criticism of the Government! Irritating Songs! Other Irritating Songs! Even Kevin Bacon! Goodness, what a ride it's been.

And of course, now that the blog is 2 years old, I can expect it to become recalcitrant, and to keep me up at nights, and to wake me up early in the morning, and to blow bubbles in its milk. Luckily I've had recent experience dealing with all those behaviours, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

In all seriousness, though, I didn't really start this blog with any plans or intentions for it. It was originally just a kind of idle curiosity which made me click the 'create blog' button on Goodreads. If I'm being honest I expected it to just fizzle out after a couple of months, as these things so often tend to do. But it didn't. Musings... has somehow managed to worm its way into my life, and despite my occasional long silences, I've got to say that I've gotten so much more out of blogging than I ever expected to.

It's put me back in touch with old friends. It's helped me to clarify a lot of my ideas about writing and why I do it. If nothing else, it's made me write regularly and (some of the time, at least) thoughtfully. Also, looking back across the last couple of years of posts - and this is something I didn't expect at all - it's become a sort of record of a fairly huge couple of years of my life, which is something I've never done before.

I'm not a diarist - never have been. Never really saw the point, to be honest. I kept a diary for about a year and a half when I was a teenager and then, thankfully, I burned it. Keeping a day to day (or, let's be honest, week-to-week) record of my thoughts and life always seemed a little pointless.

But reviewing the last couple of years of posts here, I'm actually amazed at how many things I've forgotten. In the last two years I've gone from itinerant writer to full time academic, and this place has recorded that. I've met some wonderful people in the last couple of years, and it's great having them dotted throughout here. Some of my friends have achieved great things, from having first books (or trilogies - Katie, I'm looking at you here...) published, through to winning quite incredible awards, and it's been lovely having a place to celebrate them. My own books have done some good things, too, and it's nice having a record of when and where, though I'm slightly worried about just how long I've been working on 'Orion'.***

And, of course, I'm grateful to have a sort of living record of Toby's first couple of years.

So anyway, there's no real point to this post, except to say thanks to those of you who take the time to read it. I'm sure you must have much better things to do with your lives, but I doubt I'd keep writing it if nobody ever looked at it, and I've gotten so much more out of the process than I'd ever expected to so.... you know... cheers!

*or, then again, it might not have been. I'm not massively familiar with the Beatles musicology, to be honest...
Which is just the kind of statistical achievement that makes me love the internet.
***I know I keep saying this, but it's nearly finished now. Honestly. Less than 2000 words to go. I got some writing done this week, too...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Successful Friends.

I'm not sure if writing this particular post is a good idea, or if I'll be able to actually capture in words what I'm thinking about at the moment, but I think the subject matter is actually one of those really important aspects of being a writer which is rarely, or never, discussed, so I'm going to have a bash at it. I'm hoping it won't seem too self-involved or whiney. Please bear with me, if you have the patience...

It's a funny thing, this writing game.

When I first got into this business, just after UQP accepted 'The Darkness', but before it had even hit the shelves, I had a long chat with James Moloney. It was a great conversation, and one I remember to this day. We talked about all sorts of things - what I hoped to achieve, where I thought writing might take me, what type of writer I wanted to be.

Jim did me the enormous favour of asking me a lot of the questions which people new to the publishing business really need to be asked. Hard questions. Important questions.

He asked me things like; "How are you going to deal with bad reviews?" (not, you'll note, 'what will you do if you get some bad reviews?' but, 'How will you deal with it WHEN it happens?')

He asked me; "What will you respond when someone tells you to your face that they didn't particularly like your book."

We discussed "What will you do when you miss out on an award which you really thought you'd win?"

And he asked me; "How will you deal with other people's success?"*

It was, I think, one of the most important discussions of my life. I owe Jim an enormous debt of thanks for making me really confront some of these darker aspects of the relationship between writing and ego, early on in my career.

Because the answers to those questions can, in many ways, define the writer you become. So much of this writing world is about rejection, in some form or another - from the moment you get your first form letter from a publisher, to the moment you miss out on a shortlisting, or get overlooked in a writers festival program, or miss out on your fifth or sixth consecutive grant application**.

And it can be even more subtle, even more insidious: One of the conversations I hate the most in the world is when I'm out in company and someone mentions that I'm 'a writer'. Generally nowadays if people ask me 'what do you do for a living?' I just tell them I'm an academic, and try and move the conversation on as fast as possible. Often, though, it'll come out that I'm a writer, and the inevetable follow up question is 'What have you written?'

It's never the questioner's fault that they haven't read any of my books, or heard of me. There are millions of books out there, after all, and I'm the first to admit that mine aren't generally well known. And there are plenty of writers out there who I wouldn't recognise from a bar of soap. And, for all that, it's not like I feel the need for my work to be recognised by everyone. But I still really hate that moment; the blank look of 'failure-to-register' which usually flickers across someone's face when told a couple of my titles is, to be brutally honest, horrible. Crushing.

It's irrational, I know. Egocentric, certainly. But horrible nonetheless.

But it's something which - I suspect - every writer experiences. And with it comes the feeling that you're wasting your life. That you don't have any real talent. That the last thing you wrote was pointless, and that the thing you're currently working on will be worse.

George Orwell summed it up best. In his seminal essay 'Why I Write', he attributed his drive to be 'a writer' to four central influences, all of which - in different proportions - play a part in driving a writer to pursue his or her craft, often at the expense of other aspects of their life.

The first of these, he suggests, is 'sheer egoism'.
...Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc etc. It is humbug to pretned that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristing with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen - in short, wiht the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition - in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all - and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self centred than journalists, though less interested in money... (1968:3)
I can't say that I disagree with Orwell's take on the role of the ego. (Though it's important to add that ego is only part of the mix. He also suggests that 'Aesthetic enthusiasm, Historical Impulse and Political Purpose are the three other driving influences behind a writer's writings, and this works fine for me. Although I also think you can make a pretty good argument for 'ego' being the driving force behind each of them, too...)

Every writer I know has an ego. It's not a bad thing. It's actually one of the tools of the trade and, as Orwell suggested, an essential one. It's ego which keeps you going in the face of the lukewarm or downright bad reviews - especially important in this age of 'Goodreads' and 'Amazon', where everyone has the right and capacity to publish their opinions on everything. It's ego that helps you ignore the little voice in the back of your head which whispers 'this is shit' in your ear as you write. It's ego that helps steady your hand when you click your Manuscript off to a publisher, or an agent, for the first time. It's ego that calms your nerves when you step on stage at a writer's festival, or just in a local library talking to a book club.

So yes, it's a tool. Part of the toolbox. But it's a tool which can get out of control and do a lot of damage. A little like an angle grinder. Your ego can also - if you let it - tear you apart, make you crave acceptance, make you expect certain privileges, make you view other people's successes as your own failings and, in short, can make you into a not very nice person to be around. It can make you say things you later regret, come off as arrogant or just downright rude. It can make you behave in ways you can't believe, looking back. I've been guilty of all these in the course of my writing career.

But - and this is the important part - it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom, and it's important to remember that. It's all a matter of perspective, which is why the questions that Jim asked me, way back in 1998, were so important.

Take that last one, for example. "How will you deal with other people's success?"

This one's a biggie. It can, I suspect, either make or break a writer, and it's one of those things you have to make a conscious decision about. You have to, I think, decide that you're going to celebrate other writer's successes, and not take personally the fact that your own works might not be getting the same recognition. That way lies madness. And the bottom line is that someone else's success, or talent, or ability, shouldn't (doesn't) have any impact at all on the value of your own work. I don't love my books any more, or any less when they win or miss out on awards. It's not like I'd have written them any differently (the book of mine which I think is one of the best stories I've ever written is also the one that never even got a shortlisting for a single award, is still on its first print run and which never really took off here in Australia, and yet I wouldn't change a word of it.)

When I started writing seriously, I made two good friends early on in the piece. (Actually, I made a lot of good friends, but I'm going to concentrate on two in particular). One was a young bloke named Markus, who was about my age, has a similar sense of humour to me, and who Imogen and I really clicked with during a literature festival out in Ipswich one weekend. The other was an illustrator- a guy named Shaun, who'd done a couple of books with my friend Gary Crew, and was - like me - a Perth boy. I actually bought a couple of Shaun's early artworks, because I liked them so much.***

A couple of days ago, Shaun was awarded the Astrid Lindgren prize, which is quite good. He also won another rather good prize earlier this year...

Markus, in 2005, penned a little book which, among other things, went to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. A few weeks ago it was mentioned on the brilliant sitcom 'Modern Family'.

All of which, let's face it, is awesome. Shaun and Markus are two of the nicest people I know, and two of the most talented, and I can't think of anyone else more deserving of the accolades they've received. You'd have to be a fairly self involved tosser to say otherwise.

But - and this is, I guess, the point of this long ramble - I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a couple of moments of - not jealousy or envy - but wistfulness. A couple of moments when I've watched these mates of mine achieving the most incredible things and wondered if perhaps I should have done some things differently. Wondered if, perhaps, I'm not as good a writer as I think I am (I'm pretty sure I'm not, actually...)

Do I begrudge my successful friends their wins? Of course not. If nothing else, the 'trickle down' effect means that their success is good for every other YA and children's writer. Including me. And watching their achievements has made me reassess a few of the decisions I've made in my writing career, and decide to - better late than never - remedy them.

More importantly, it's much more fun being able to revel in other people's successes. Much, much more fun. It's much nicer at the end of the day to go to bed delighted for your colleagues than it is wishing it was you.

And when the little ego voice cuts in, it's also a vital skill to be able to silence it and, in my experience, one of the best ways of doing this is to make that conscious decision to celebrate your field of practice and everyone involved in it, and not to treat it as a competition.

Which is what I try to do nowadays, with everything. And it helps turn those wistful moments into something positive, something useful.

So big (HUGE) congrats to Shaun, for both his Academy Award (BTW, if you haven't seen his film of 'The Lost Thing', then you really need to do yourself a favour and get your hands on it.) and for his winning of the Astrid Lindgren Prize. I can't think of a more deserving winner.

*I should mention that I am, for readability purposes, paraphrasing his questions into neat little bundles here, but all this was discussed in a conversation that lasted more than a couple of hours...
** All of these are based on experience, sadly.

*** Which turned out to be a really good decision.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Throughness and Connection

Last monday night (yes, I know it's thursday already, and yes, I know I said I'd blog more regularly this week...) I was lucky enough to present the grand prizes at the annual ACT English Teachers Association Litlinks writing competition. This is the third year in a row that I've been lucky enough to be invited to be the final judge of this really fantastic writing showcase, and every year the job seems to get more and more difficult. This years entries were probably the most difficult I've ever had to decide between. Huge congratulations to all the young writers who entered.

But that's not really what I want to talk about today. Or at least, not entirely. Today I want to share some of the ideas I talked about in my speech at the awards ceremony, and one in particular, because I think it's a lovely writerly idea that is worth putting out there.

So today I'm going to talk about horse riding. I'm also going to steal shamelessly from another writer.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've recently taken up horse riding and it's quickly become the little pool of zen in the middle of my week*

The only way to act around horses is to stay calm and measured, and to exude a sort of inner peace and restraint in your movements and in your mental attitude. If you don't do this, the horse picks up on it. Then they kick you. Unless you're already up on their back, in which case they throw you off. Then they kick you.**

And even if they don't kick you, if the rider on their back is overworking them, or dragging at the bit, or slumping and throwing their weight around, or constantly kicking and poking with their heels, then horses get grumpy, and stubborn, and refuse to do what they're told. Which is fair enough. I'd do the same.

So it's a good idea, when working with horses, to really get yourself into a good headspace. To get into a mental space where you're working with the horse, rather than trying to impose your will upon it.

All this I worked out pretty early on in the piece. About three minutes into my first trip to the riding school, actually, as I watched a couple of other people having a lesson. And the result of having to get myself into that 'zen' headspace is that, at the end of the lesson, when I swing down off the horse, I find myself incredibly relaxed, calm and refreshed. And that feeling generally stays with me for the rest of the day. It makes work easier, it makes me happier and more fun to be around, and - best of all - it makes me write better. I've noticed this. Riding puts me into a really good headspace for writing.

And it's not just me, either.

Late last week, while doing some research for a lecture, I came across an article written by the fantastic British writer Meg Rosoff. It's (as you would expect) a beautifully written reflection on how she goes about the business of writing, and the forces that come into play, and - to my surprise - about the relationship between horseriding and the process of writing. You can read the whole paper HERE - it's in volume II, number I.

What particularly resonated with me in Rosoff's piece, though, was towards the end, when she talks about two of the central skills that horse riders strive for in their riding - 'Throughness' and 'openness'. I'm going to quote her directly here, because she expresses this idea much better than I can:
I took up horse riding at the age of 50. I hadn’t ridden in more than 35 years, and even then, not properly. For anyone who thinks horse riding involves sitting on a horse, kicking it to go fast, and pulling on the reins to slow down, may I begin by saying that it is fantastically more complex than that.

It involves great strength, balance, lightness, decisiveness, and humility. It requires a willingness to partner, to communicate, to trust -- but never to relinquish responsibility or trust too much. Two of the most important concepts associated with riding are ‘throughness’ and ‘connection.’

The United States Dressage Federation defines throughness as ‘The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back. Synonymous with the German term "Durchlaessigkeit," or "throughlettingness.” ’ Connection is defined as a state “in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single harmonious unit; the unrestricted flow of energy and influence from and through the
rider to and throughout the horse, and back to the rider.”

Now think, for a minute, of the subconscious mind as the horse and the conscious mind as the rider. If the rider is too strong, too stiff or unsympathetic, the horse becomes inaccessible and difficult to control, or dull and resistant. The object of dressage is to create a fluid exchange of understanding and energy between horse and rider; an advanced dressage rider is often described as asking questions that the horse answers.

In writing, this powerful flow of energy cannot be faked, any more than it can in riding. A book written from the conscious, controlled mind will feel as stiff and lifeless as an insensitive rider on a resentful horse. Or a singer’s voice coming from the head rather than the chest and diaphragm. Or a ball thrown from the elbow. Writing (like riding, or singing or playing a musical instrument, or painting or playing cricket or thinking about the universe) requires the deep psychological resonance of the subconscious mind. It requires connection and throughness, and only then will the reader feel the surge of power that a clever borrowed voice never achieves.
I love this idea. I love particularly the notion that when I'm writing, I'm trying not to impose myself upon the words, but to allow the words to flow through me. Some days I achieve this, some days I don't. I love the notion that a good dressage rider asks questions that the horse answers - (I spend a lot of time teaching workshops on the value of questions as a narrative driver, and so this also rings very true with me).

Throughness, and Connection. They're not skills that I have in my riding, yet. At this point, I'm still working at not falling off. But, all the same, I love the idea of them, and already they're skills I'm working towards, every single lesson. From the moment I walk into the stable to bridle up my horse, to the moment I put him away and untack him again at the end.

And they're not skills that I always have in my writing. But, just like in riding, they're something to strive towards, with every sentence, and every paragraph.

*technically, as my lessons are usually on Mondays, it's become a pool of Zen at the start of my week. Unless you count my weeks from Thursday, in the same manner as the financial year starts in July...

** Just to be clear, I wrote that paragraph for comic effect - in reality all the horses I've come across to date have been incredibly tolerant and not even slightly psycopathic. Which, given the rather un-coordinated way I ride them at this point, is a testament to their stoicism. I haven't been kicked at all.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Embarrassed Silence....

So the last you heard from me was during the middle of the Perth Writer's Festival, where I was having a great time. And I was. I wrote my last entry up in a nearby pub and, after completing it, I walked out the door and straight into an old friend and housemate of mine who I haven't seen in probably 5 years or so, and who told me that he and his wife are pregnant. So we went back into the pub. Then another friend of mine, who I also haven't seen in ages (I'm really quite bad at keeping in touch with people) rang to tell me that he and his wife are pregnant. A definite pattern was emerging. So we stayed in the pub. Then I had dinner. Then I went to my hotel and drank a lot of water. Then I slept - a glorious, uninterrupted night's sleep.

The following morning I felt good. Some might say surprisingly good. Got off to the festival out at the University of WA, I phoned up one of Imogen and my old friends who I knew was at the festival that day and we arranged to meet that evening, after my final session, for a glass of wine and a catch up. Then I was planning to get to some of the evening events. After that, I had my first session for the day - a fantastic panel on Writing Australian Speculative Fiction, with (among others) my very good friend Margo Lanagan. We had a good time riffing off each other, and there was a good crowd and some fantastic questions.

Then off to the signing tent for half an hour or so. Then I bolted down half a sandwich, gave my son a cuddle (He'd arrived with grandparents just before my panel session) and then off to take a 3 hour workshop on writing fantasy. I was really looking forward to this workshop - it was one I'd not done before, and I'd put together some (in my opinion, at least) really interesting and fun stuff.

And it started well. The first hour was great, and the fifteen or so people who'd signed up were all lovely and engaged. The lecture theatre was a little gloomy, though, and so we had all the flourescent lights on.

The flickering, hard, white, flourescent lights.

About an hour into the workshop, while standing up the front of the lecture theatre, I noticed something a little odd - I couldn't read the monitor screen for my powerpoint projection any more. All I could see was a growing, pixellated blur. I also felt very suddenly nauseaus.

And this could only mean one thing...


I used to get a lot of migraines in my late teens and early 20's. I know the warning signs, and the first one of them is that my vision goes. That brings with it an odd sensation of 'spaciness', of feeling completely light headed and spun out. Light gets irritating at first and then, usually a couple of hours after the vision problems, the headache hits and, once that happens, nothing makes a dent in it. If I can gulp down some strong painkillers and get myself to a darkened room as soon as the vision thing starts, then the headache isn't usually too bad, and sometimes doesn't come at all.

Of course, it's a bit difficult to do that in front of a lecture theatre full of people who've all done me the courtesy of coming along to work with me. Especially when you're only about halfway through a workshop.

It was horribly embarrassing. I had to stop in the middle of a sentence, explain what was happening in my head, ask if anybody had any painkillers (one lovely person had some Panadol, which I knocked back like a junkie) and would they mind terribly if I turned all the lights off.

With the lecture theatre then plunged into darkness, and one of the lovely festival volunteers fetching me some fruit (I suspect that plunging blood sugar is one of the triggering factors for these) we all ploughed on with the workshop.

To be honest, I can't actually remember much of the rest of the afternoon. I know I got through to the end of the workshop, and then the festival got me back to the hotel quick smart. I remember vaguely getting some dinner into me ($50.00 for a plate of pasta. Thanks, room service...) and then it was lights out, both literally and metaphorically.

When I woke up the following morning, the headache had gone. I still felt spacey and a little light sensitive, but at least I was functional. Then it was back out to the festival for my final presentation - 40 minutes talking about my family on an outdoor stage during 'family day'. Lots of kids. Lots of old friends who I managed to talk to for about three minutes. As part of that presentation, Toby made his stage debut, bringing up some props for one of my stories.

Then another long night's sleep, and then on monday morning I checked out and headed up to my parent's place to pick up Toby. That afternoon we flew home to Canberra. Tuesday was back to work and 234 waiting emails, which took me most of last week to clear. This week's been similarly jammed, which is why I haven't written anything here (or anywhere else, for that matter - Orion is still firmly parked, about 3500 words from completion.)

In the meantime, one of my good friends has won an Oscar, the world has shaken in New Zealand and Japan, causing unspeakable suffering which I can't bring myself to write about, I've continued my weekly horseriding lessons, and life has basically continued at a breakneck pace.

Anyway, it's probably time I signed off from this long ramble. From next week I'm going to try and get back into my regular writing routine again, which will include blogging again. Actually, next monday evening, I'm involved in something exciting, which I'll tell you all about next week.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

PWF day one

Okay, this'll be short, because I'm typing it up on mi iPad, having to use the HTML edit function to enter text, while drinking a (admittedly rather nice) beer in a pub near my hotel.

I've just finished my first really enjoyable day at the PWF, spoke to a couple of groups, both of which, though small, were really interested and good fun to be with. I also got to catch up with writer friends, including (and I'll apologize now for the lack of links in this post - iPad issues. I'll plug them in later on my computer. If I remember...) Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Brian Faulkner, and Bernard Beckett. I also got to meet the lovely Wendy Orr, though owing to a small brain fart on my part (thanks largely to the fact that I had bee. Awake since 5.00am, due to having a toddler still on Canberra time) i referred to her as an illustrator. She isn't, of course, she's a fantastic writer. And also very gracious.

While I was doing my festival gigs, Toby, who has been something of a little champion the last few days, was off playing with an assortment of grandparents. I suspect there was probably sugar and ice-cream involved. Then he went home with my mum and dad to their place, and I went and checked in to the festival hotel. We did this because the hotel is just a few minutes from the festival, whereas my folks house is a little over an hours drive away, usually through Heavy traffic. Festival gigs, though a lot of fun, are also a lot of hard work, so minimizing the commute is a good idea.

Of course, this means that, for the first time ever, Toby is spending more than one night away from both min and I. And, I'll be honest with you, it feels a little strange. Even though he's with two of the four people I'd trust most in the world with him, its still rather strange to be suddenly away from him, especially after the last few days, which have included some of the most intense parenting I've done to date - traveling and getting him settled with mum and dad.

The weirdness factor is also, I i, coming from the fact that now I'm essentially a tourist in my own town. On the way back to the hotel from the festival this afternoon, our driver took us through Kings Park (again, apologies for lack of links and images. But you can look it up, if your interested) Ten years or so ago, I used to do cycle training in Kings Park three nights a week. Today, in a bus full of interstate visitors, it was a little like seeing the place and the city again, turlough different eyes. Same with staying in town. It's strange - familiar but different. Actually there's a touch of the uncanny about it, which is something I'm going to be talking about in my workshop this saturday, so I guess that gives me an example to draw on.

Anyway, I'm rambling, and my autocorrect is inserting all sorts of weird rubbish into this post, so I'm going to stop. In short:

Festival: good
Perth: good, if weird
Toby: missing him (but looking forward to uninterrupted night sleep plus sleep in)

TalK to you all later.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Perth Writer's Festival, plus a day at the Show

Okay, I know, I'm a bad blogger. Sadly the last couple of weeks have, thanks to a combination of sickness, work and preparation for a writer's festival, been a veritable catalogue of exhaustion.

Still, here I am now, in my parent's house in Greenmount (Toby and I got here yesterday to discover that, thanks to a freak storm which had swept across Perth the previous day, mum and dad hadn't had power for more than 24 hours. Luckily my dad, who is perhaps the most resourceful bloke I know, had managed to borrow and rig up a generator, so at least we had cold beer (for me) and icecream (for Toby)) The trip across was actually pretty good. Toby was voted best child on the plane by everyone sitting around us, which was gratifying, and we both basked in all the help and attention that a lone father travelling with a garrulous two year old can generate.

Tomorrow, I launch into my programme at the Perth Writer's Festival, starting with their schools day. These are always a great deal of fun - I had a ball earlier this year at the Sydney Writer's Festival schools days, and I'm sure that the Perth day tomorrow will be just as good. In the afternoon, I'm doing a session with New Zealand Writer Bernard Beckett, who I met a couple of years ago at Reading Matters in Melbourne, and whose novel Genesis is still one of my favourite YA speculative fiction novels ever.

On Saturday, I'm lucky enough to be chatting with my friend Margo Lanagan, who continues to make me horribly jealous of her capacity to write the most imaginative, gut wrenching short stories (and novels) I've ever read. We're going to be chatting along with Will Elliot, who I've never met, but am really looking forward to crossing paths with.

That's one of the things I love about writer's festivals, actually - I always meet new and interesting people. In Sydney last year I met another Kiwi, Brian Faulkner, and we had a great time doing our panel session there together. On Saturday, Margo, Will and I are talking about The Magic of Oz - is there an 'Australian' Fantasy voice? (And does it matter...)

I'm also taking a workshop that afternoon, looking at fantastic worlds. There are still places available, I notice, in case you're, you know, in Perth and bored. I'll be talking about Freud, Asimov, and Isobelle Carmody, among others. It should be a lot of fun.

In any case, the evening is fast approaching here, and (now that the power is back on) Mum and Toby and I are heading up to the local pool for a little bit of a dip. So I'm going to leave you with a few photos taken last weekend, when Min and I took our little boy to the Canberra Show. We did well this year - we managed to spend four hours there, and left without any showbags, and after only minimal junk food consumption. We walked about ten kilometres. We got dusty and thirsty. There were donkey rides. And fire engines. And facepainting. Fun was had by

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Whistling up the Hellhounds...

So shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison apologises. Not for the basic and fundamental inhumanity of his suggestion that those refugees who recently lost family members in the Christmas Island boat wreck (including the 9 year old boy who lost both of his parents and his brother in the disaster) not be allowed to attend the funerals of their family members, but he apologises for the timing of his comments for the same day of said funerals.

Gutter politics at its finest, Scott.

In this post, I'm not going to delve into murky depths of why I'm so socially and politically outraged over this. Other people have already done that very nicely, and far more politely than I could.

Instead, though, I want to offer a couple of tangential thoughts and observations on the whole thing:

Firstly, Mr. Morrison raised as his chief objection the $300,000 cost to the taxpayer of chartering a plane to bring the refugees from Christmas Island to Sydney for the funeral. Well, I guess that, viewed from a certain perspectives*, this might be seen as a fair enough point for any taxpayer, even a member of the Opposition, to make.

So I'll pay him that one.

And I mean that quite literally. According to the World Bank, Australia currently has a population of 21,874,900 people. That flight, therefore, cost us roughly $0.0137 AUD per person. Bearing in mind that not all of those counted in the population figures will be taxpayers, let's round that up to $0.02 a head. And given that we no longer have 0.02c coins in the Australian currency, I'll round it up again to 0.05c.

Because Mr Morrison is so upset at the cost, I'll volunteer, here and now, to pitch in his 5c for him. I'll drop a 5c coin in the post this afternoon, addressed to his electoral office. That ought to help him calm down a little.

He can even keep the change. He might be able to use it to buy his soul back.

In the meantime, here are a couple of little pictures, and one story, you (and Mr. Morrison) might be interested in:

This is a photograph of Christmas Island, taken about two or three kilometres along the coast from the Australian Immigration Detention Centre:

This is one of the Island's few beaches. I took this picture a few years ago, when I was lucky enough to do a tour of the Indian Ocean Territories, one of which I grew up on. Christmas Island is one of the most beautiful, but also frighteningly remote and inaccessible places I've ever been. To get to this 'beach' I had to 4wd and hike through dense tropical rainforest for about half an hour, before climbing down the cliffs you can see. This particular beach is only accessible on calm days at low tide. The rest of the time it's underwater.

As is most of the Island's waterline. In fact, the vast majority of the coast of Christmas Island looks like this:

Or, from close-up:

Those photos were also taken on a relatively calm day. When the seas are up, as they were on the day the refugee boat smashed against the rocks, it's far more savage. Far less forgiving. Far more brutal. It's one of the most stunning places but also one of the most psychologically daunting landscapes I've ever visited.

It's also isolated - Christmas Island was, for many years, the resting place of an unknown sailor, generally believed to have been one of the survivors of the sinking of the HMAS Sydney in 1941**. The body of the sailor, which was pulled out of the ocean at Christmas Island in 1942, was buried in an unmarked grave in the Island cemetery and within just a few short years, even the grave itself had vanished; swallowed up by the remorseless encroachment of the rainforest. Not until 2006 was the body found again and returned, still unidentified, to Australia. I was told about this story during my visit and it struck me at the time as one of the most sad and lonely tales I'd ever heard. The terrible isolation of that death and the inability of anyone to honour that sailor's memory with even passing remembrance was, I thought, as much a quirk of geography as it was the fortunes of war. For so many years, that man lay in a lost grave; unknown, unvisited, and unremarked. Even had he been identified, those who'd known and loved him would have been unable to visit his grave, thanks to the isolation and remoteness of his resting place.

And it saddens me that, 70 years later, there are still people in our community, including some of our 'leaders', who'd consign the survivors of that ill fated refugee boat to a similar burial - in a place so remote and inaccessable that their deaths would also, eventually, go unremembered and unacknowledged by those closest to them. Or, alternatively, who'd deny those who survived the tragedy the catharsis of closure - who'd attempt to score political points by denying those survivors, including that little boy, the opportunity to properly farewell their loved ones. Their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children. And all for less than 1 cent of their taxes. All to appeal to 'popular' sentiment.

But it's not just Mr. Morrison who's attracted my ire.

One more picture:

This is a photograph I took, during my visit, of the Australian Immigration Detention Centre under construction. It's built at the far end of the island, as far as it's possible to get from the main settlement at Flying Fish Cove. It's surrounded on three sides, as you can see, by dense tropical rainforest which ends abruptly at those sheer coastal cliffs. On the fourth side, it's separated from the rest of the Island by barbed wire fences.

And, at 9.00 this morning, the minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen M.P, allowed that 9 year old boy, who'd been orphaned on the wild coast of Christmas Island, to be taken from Sydney, where he'd just buried his parents and brother and where he has living relatives, and put on a plane back to Christmas Island.

And at that particular piece of inhumanity, words fail me.

*the point of view of a rabble rousing bottom feeder, for example

** Survivor of the battle and sinking. Clearly not a survivor in the broader sense of the term.


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