Thursday, 23 January 2014

Short stories, and what kick-starts them

I've just had a short story accepted for publication in the Margaret River short story anthology for 2014. It's called Walking the Dog.



(It isn't really about walking a dog.) It wasn't a place-getter, it was short-listed, but it was nice to receive this honour, especially as a short story of mine was included in last year's Margaret River anthology. 

Both stories are close to my heart. Both contain traces of my own life. And this started me thinking about my short stories. I don't write many. Last year, from memory, I wrote only one, a very short one, called Night Stop, which, incidentally contained a large chunk of my own life, and which was accepted for publication in Stilts. This year I have already written one, which is a piece of memoir rather than a short story but it could work as either, and which I intend to submit to the Fish Memoir Competition.

So how do I write them?  And I'm not talking about the nuts and bolts -- structure, plot, characters -- here.

I am interested in exploring this because it seems to me that every writer has a different approach. A tutor I had at QUT once told me that he needed three things before he could start a story. I am not so analytical. I've got some ideas of what I need, but they are nothing definitive.

Clearly, one of the things I need is a snippet or some part of my own life. The other thing I need is an impetus for starting the story. Night Stop was written because I had wanted to get into a Stilts publication for a while, and when they set a guideline of the story having to be about travel or adventure of some kind, it came easily to me because I love to travel. Who doesn't? I particularly like road trips, and driving, which is what Night Stop is about.



I didn't write Walking the Dog for any particular reason. So that one is an exception to the impetus rule. I had just read Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, which I loved, and I had spent two weeks with my elderly parents, and when I returned home I had this idea that I wanted to write in an old man voice. I put the two together - the time spent with my elderly parents and the voice used in Out Stealing Horses - and came up with a first person story about an old guy who's recently lost his wife. Unconsciously, I suppose I was thinking about this when I spent time with my parents. How one of them would be, if they lost the other. The setting is my parent's house, and the village where they live, which was useful to me. I could imagine my dad in the house, and I could imagine him down on the beach. 



The part I don't know is how I came up with the plot of the story. I suppose if I knew that I would be writing a lot more short stories, although it doesn't really bother me that I don't write more. I am much more interested in getting my first novel published, and the draft of my second one finished.

Any ideas from other writers on how they write short stories?  Love to hear them... 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Books I read in 2013

Unlike 2012's list I am cutting to the chase and beginning 2013's list with my top reads. I couldn't cut them down to three. Sigh. It was too hard.
There were a couple of books I read for research, two actually, but I'm not going to make that distinction this time. As well as the publication date, I've included whether I purchased the book, got it from the library, or borrowed it. (Interestingly, I cut back on buying and used the library more.) And as usual I've made a comment on the cover. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Can you judge a book by its cover? Definitely not. But a good cover makes a good impression. It's like wearing the right clothes for a job interview. 

My top reads for 2013:

Winter's Bone (2010) by Daniel Woodrell - Library

Now and then a story comes by. It comes a’knocking, and before you even ask it in it jerks the rug from under your feet. Takes your breath away it does. And your smarts. Leaves you feeling dumb and numb, like you been smacked in the mouth. This here is one such tale, a business that truly deserves them five stars. It surely was amazing. 

Some readers might argue the goings’on is away too bleak and gut-wrenching miserable for them five stars but see, it ain’t so much about what goes on as it is about them thair words.  They be poetry, and not too many of them, and the ways of nature plain robbed of loveliness and whittled back to bare bone.  The people themselves they live miserable lives in down-at-heel poverty, and yet…and yet there be such a spirit of humanity shining through. This book here is a’going straight – like a cherub flying direct to heaven – to my Top Ten. The cover? Well, it don’t exactly thrill me, but it ain’t purty. And that’s the thing, cos this here story sure don’t need no purty cover.

Burial Rites (2013) by Hannah Kent - Library
I am overwhelmed by the talent of today’s young writers. Hannah Kent is only 27, and Burial Rites is quite a debut.  The fascinating thing is that we are told the outcome of the story at the start – it’s about the last execution of a woman in Iceland – and yet we continue to read avidly on in the hope that somehow the fact is incorrect, that Agnes Magnusdottir will escape death. There are so many things to admire about this novel, from the desolate bleak landscape to the earthy solid characters, to the writing, which is clear, and clean like the landscape’s ever present cold and ice. I was lucky enough to be at one of Hannah Kent’s book launches, and the author, like her narrative, is self-assured and forthcoming. I expect we shall see more of her work in the future. And the cover? The cover is stunning.

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazou Ishiguro - Library
I read this in two days. I would have read it faster but I forced myself to slow down and savour every sentence. NLMG is a dystopian science-fiction novel created in a parallel universe.  I say that because although there is mention of WWII there’s no mention of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or any modern music that a young girl (the narrator)  would have been bound to mention.  I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I say that Kathy H is a clone, she has no parents, siblings or children of her own, and that therefore she comes across as a little obsessed with her two best friends. I kept thinking that this obsession with who said what and when was going to lead to something huge and was bitterly disappointed when it didn’t, but then I thought maybe that was Ishiguro’s intention. He wanted the reader to feel that same disappointment the main characters feel. That’s my interpretation anyway.  Beguiling, haunting narrative.  Less than average cover.


Mr Wigg (2013) by Inga Simpson - Purchased new
A deceptively simple story told with great pathos. Anybody who has elderly parents or a much loved grandparent will be touched by Mr Wigg and his day-to-day life. Sometimes I found myself quietly chuckling; other times I had to put the book away because I was weeping and couldn't stop. After I finished the novel I couldn't stop thinking about the main character. I still think of him, particularly after we won The Ashes, and whenever anyone gives me home-made chutney.  Well done, Inga Simpson. I look forward to reading what you come up with next. Great eye-catching cover. Orange. And love the typeface for Mr Wigg.


Room (2010) by Emma Donnaghue - Purchased secondhand
Five year old Jack is the book's narrator, and what a wonderful job he does from the opening line. His mother has been held captive for seven years by a pervert and crackpot. Jack's never known anything else but the room in which they live. You can't help but fall in love with him and become a child again yourself, appreciating the little but big things - light, sunshine, water. Apart from the superb use of language what I liked about this story was that it continued into that grey area which is seldom explored or even documented - what happens afterwards. The cover is brilliant.


A Monster Calls (2011) by Patrick Ness - Library
Today’s child readers are lucky. They get to read awesome books like this as well as the great classics. Not fair. How many other gems have I missed out on simply because I no longer read children’s fiction? (Note to self: from now on read one children’s book a year.) This is a story that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I am unashamed to say that I cried long and hard, but in the cold light of day decided what I really liked was the story’s unpredictability, and its truth. The Monster tells thirteen year old Conor three stories and Conor has to tell the Monster his story. But the monster’s three stories are thought-provoking and compelling; almost exotic. And the novel’s truth is hard and unflinching. Highly recommended. Incredible illustrations and inspiring, really scary cover. 

There endeth my list of top reads. Way too many, I know. 

The House of Stairs (1988) by Barbara Vine - Purchased secondhand
Brilliant.  An unreliable narrator. A lesson in maintaining suspense. A fresh portrayal of London in the sixties.  Enticing allusions to Henry James that made me want to reread The Wings of the Dove. Definitely will be reading more Barbara Vine. Wish I had discovered her earlier.  Cover does not excite.
 



The Housekeeper and the Professor (2009) by Yoko Ogawa - Library
Translated from the Japanese. A simple story simply told. I can’t decide whether it was good or average, ie too simple.  It concerns the everyday life of an absent-minded professor – literally, his memory spans only 80 minutes – and his housewife and her son, Root (the shape of his head reminds the professor of the square root sign). I did learn a little about maths, but the story didn’t touch me in any sort of profound way, although I did find myself thinking about the characters afterwards, which is a good sign. Boring but pretty cover.


The Twelve (2012) by Justin Cronin - Purchased new
Terrible, terrible disappointment. I got through it by skipping chapters and dipping in and out, and - my favourite - reading from the back. What happened, Mr Cronin? After the overwhelming success of The Passage did the fame of being a rock star writer go to your head? Not even going to attempt to rate the cover.





The Wings of the Dove (1902) by Henry James - Library
There were days when it seemed that in spite of all my efforts and the perspiration which gathered unwittingly upon my frowning brow, I would never reach even the halfway mark of this intricate and at times incredibly long-sentenced and many-comma’ed narrative of society in the late 1800s, and not only society but more importantly unrequited love. However, I persisted, and I am, I think I can say with conviction, a more knowledgeable and more appreciative person for it. In short – can one be short when talking about Henry James? – the story, a love story at its heart, is a lose-lose situation.  Painful and intense.  And requiring all one’s wits. And now I walk forth. I need air. The master has quite, quite exhausted me. Exquisite cover.


Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn - Purchased new
Gone Girl reached the best-selling list of the New York Times, and was said to be unputdownable. I therefore began it with expectations. It’s a thriller with a difference: the narrative alternates between the two main characters’ POV, and by the time you are halfway it is hard to decide which one exactly is the victim. It kept me spellbound until about three quarters of the way and then I became a little bored with the game this married couple plays, and the female’s voice began to get on my nerves. But apart from some occurrences of not credible behaviour in the latter part, the author makes some worthwhile comments on the social and sexual behaviours of both men and women. The open ending is decidedly creepy.  The cover is different, interesting and minimalistic.

Steeplechase (2013) by Krissy Kneen - Library
What intrigued me at the start was that I recognized parts of the narrative. And this is why: in 2010 Krissy Kneen was runner up in the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize with the short story Steeple Chase. (Go to http://www.textjournal.com.au/ulrick/ to read it and see how a short story becomes a novel.) I imagine it was the catalyst for this narrative.  Steeplechase explores schizophrenia and madness in an unflinching  and honest manner, but it is the narrator that gets under your skin. A mesmerising voice, whose matter-of-factness only serves to emphasise the rawness and honesty of the story. I loved the juxtaposition between the narrator’s two voices - teenage and mature. And what a lovely rendition of the bumbling, insecure little sister, so desperately seeking affection. Krissy Kneen is best known for her erotic writing; she has published a memoir, Affection, and Triptych. This is her first non-erotic novel, but her background in handling sex scenes serves her well. I get the feeling that Krissy Kneen has found a new direction. Watch out. Stunning cover. 

Questions of Travel (2012) by Michelle de Kretser - Library
I gave up on this book at page 57. In a way I gave up because the book is 500 pages long. If it had been shorter I might have persevered. I didn’t care for the characters; I found the writing overblown and heavy-handed. Here’s an example: But what came out of Laura Fraser’s mouth was a giant burp. She was passing an open window at the time. The two on the other side muffled their merriment in a pillow, and enjoyed each other more fiercely thereafter.  I was very disappointed since I loved The Lost Dog (2007), which is by comparison light, lyrical and deeply moving. Questions of Travel, however, was short-listed for the Stella Prize, so take no notice of me, clearly I’m no literary critic. Beautiful cover.  

Death of a River Guide (1994) by Richard Flanagan - Purchased new
What to say...What to say...I can't think of anything, other than I did not enjoy this. And, yes, I know I sound like a high school student and I'm not being very helpful. I think it was the meandering nature of the book (and I get that, too). I gave up on it. I read bits and pieces. It must be me, since he is an acclaimed writer. Stunning cover, but then I love anything with water.



Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson - Library
What happened Ms Atkinson? I went into this determined not to be prejudiced by my adoration of Jackson Brodie and his brilliant supporting cast and, at first, I was captivated. Head over heels. Then you went peculiar at about Germany, became stilted, resorted to telling and not showing, and filled the pages with too many characters I couldn't connect with, and never would. And I lost you. Lost interest. Lost Ursula. Too many quotes and references. Too much cleverness. And about 100 pages too much repetition that made me think you couldn't work out how to end this story. So sad. Oh yes, the cover. Great. But not as great as Started early, took my dog.

Dog Boy (2009) by Eva Hornung - Purchased secondhand
Eva Sallis, as she was then, once tutored me in a creative writing class and I knew Dog Boy would probably be good. Also, I love dogs. That’s a big advantage when reading Dog Boy because the habits of feral dogs are more than a little stomach-turning. And it is a very good story. The only reason I’ve held back from declaring it worthy of my Top Reads List is that there was a point about a third of the way when the story stuttered, when I felt it was overly repetitious and that we weren’t moving forward and I almost lost interest. But once Puppy entered, it became utterly compelling. The ending is a triumph; it could have been messy and/or sentimental. Terrific cover. 

The Call of the Wild, White Fang and Other Stories (1903) by Jack London - Library
A classic, a book I've been meaning to read for a long, long time. Also about dogs, but so very different to Dog Boy above. Enthralling, touching, acutely observed. Good cover, although now slightly dated.




Negotiating with the Dead :

  A Writer on Writing (2002) by Margaret Atwood - Purchased new
Interesting essays, but nothing memorable. Unfortunate, given the range and brilliance of the writer. Boring cover.
 



 


Flight Behaviour (2012) by Barbara Kingsolver - Borrowed
This was a mostly intelligent and intriguing read, what we've come to expect from a Kingsolver novel - nothing to do with aeroplanes but all about butterflies and climate change. However, there were a couple of times when I felt let down by a good, solid edit. For instance, there's a scene in a used goods shop that goes on for pages and pages, almost driving me to distraction, and it really does not do anything for the story. Beautiful cover.



The Household Guide to Dying (2008) by Debra Adelaide - Library
About a dying woman who is the author of How To guides. I didn't know what to expect but I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Quirky and unconventional. Lots of places where I recognised myself, for instance, in the way I hang out washing - socks in pairs, undies at the back. Endearing protagonist. Attractive cover.   


 



The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) by Neil Gaiman - Purchased new
Strangely compelling story. A British childhood revisited. Be prepared to withhold credibility. I'm not sure if I agree with Goodreads.com choice of best Fantasy book of 2013 although it has its moments. Beautiful cover. 






Apple Tree Yard (2013) by Louise Doughty - Library
This was an absolutely compelling read and I loved the way the story began at the end, and came full circle. And the writing is very good. However, the ending left me unsatisfied. There seemed to be an awful lot hanging on some slim threads. And I would have liked more sex. Yes, sex. It's a story about an affair. Doesn't lots of sex go on in affairs? The cover is brilliant, almost breath-taking.   


 

 French Women Don't Get Fat (2005) by Mireille Guiliano - Borrowed
Ok, so I didn't read this from cover to cover; it isn't that sort of book. I dipped into it every now and again. What the author's saying isn't anything new, and in my opinion it isn't restricted to French women. Staying slim and/or thin is a lifestyle choice; it's how you think about food and exercise and how important looking good is to you. I know for a fact that when I'm my ideal weight I feel sexy, attractive and positive. So when my weight starts to creep over and above that benchmark, doing something about it is a no-brainer. To a certain extent I was a little irritated by the author's tone - a sort of a Ooh la la, aren't we French women so clever tone - particularly since I don't think the average French woman is into conveying that impression. The French women I've seen portrayed in art house movies, and met on trains and in the cafe sidewalks, are sophisticated but reserved, smart but warm-hearted. I can't help feeling that the years of living in America have made Mireille Guiliano write something decidedly un-French. Boring cover.
 
Knitting & other stories (2013) Edited by Richard Rossiter - Given
I was given this book by the Margaret River Press because I have a short story in it. It wasn't a winner, or even a runner up, of their annual competition, but they wanted to include it in the anthology, which was nice for me. I found it hard to judge the quality of the rest of the stories because - let's face it - I was biased, but it received fairly good reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald. I quite like the cover. I think it's clever.  





There were a couple of books I read that I've summed up in one or two sentences, mostly because I run out of time. These are they:
 

The Sense of an Ending (2012) by Julian Barnes - Borrowed
I was disappointed by this. I was expecting something remarkable - Booker prize winner and all that - but I found it sadly lacking.  It must be me... Boring cover.
 







 

Bay of Fires (2013) by Poppy Gee - Library
This is a debut novel, and much as I wanted to like it I was a little disappointed. But I will be keen to read what Poppy Gee writes next. I think she has promise, and will grow. Cover is good, but I think it could have been better.







Broken (2008) by Daniel Clay - Library


Compelling read, and I loved the comparisons with To Kill a Mockingbird, but I was not in the right frame of mind, and by the close I was sick of the violence and horror and I just wanted it to stop and go away. Cover does nothing for me.
 








The End : The Human Experience of Death (2013) by Bianca Nogrady - Library
Very interesting book. Well-written and researched. A topic not commonly covered. Dead (!) boring cover, but maybe it was meant to be like that.  

Perfume : The Story of a Murderer (1986) by Patrick Suskind - Library
I'd been wanting to read this for a long time. It's a book that assaults the senses, but it's a strange story, almost a fairy tale. Cover is very very good.  
THE END - My apologies for the typeface chopping and changing. I have tried everything to correct this, but nothing works...Gremlins in the system.