on the writing & reading trail

Archive for July, 2012

Words, writing, editing, critiquing, reading

Days 73-78 (July 25 to 30)

Words: I don’t remember what triggered the memory but the word ‘scunner’ drifted into mind and took me back many years to my early months and years in Scotland when I battled with accents, different word usage and what seemed like an endless procession of new and often strange sounding words and sayings. It was unexpected, as my father had adapted fully to Australian speech and mannerisms. Probably partly self-preservation as an immigrant and a little to do with his keen musical ear. He could play any tune on request after a few starter notes and was in demand for round-the-piano sing-alongs when friends got together.

Although a Scots word, I didn’t hear scunner used much in Scotland; more so by a Belfast neighbour in Northern Ireland. She would often say that someone or something was a scunner. Her tone of voice left no doubt that she looked on the person or thing with disgust. A vivid word. Scots and Irish history is interwoven with much population movement in both directions.

Two other ‘s’ words felt right as well when I got to know them. An irate father might say, ‘A’ll skelp the sleekit wee bugger’s bum if he tries that again.’ (I’ll smack the sneaky little one’s bottom).

More than half of my first draft novel, Past Imperfect, is set in Scotland. Initially I used a fair bit of dialect, but bowed to the recommendations of Writing Group critiquers and advice in books on writing and cut it back significantly.  What follows is a small segment that survived. Opinions welcome.


1941 – Gorbals:  Sssh Nancy, the wean’s sleepin’. Puir wee thing, she’s bin coughin’ sore. Her mam’s near roon the bend wi’ worry and she hates to leave her, but she’s nae choice but tae work.’ She laid down her cup with care to avoid it clinking. 

‘Aye, there’s a few in the same boat. Lucky she seems strong enough hersel’. Mebbe from all that guid highland air till she came here,’ whispered Isa.

‘The young’un would be the better o’ that for sure. It’s a wonder she doesnae go back to ‘er family now ‘er man’s been kilt.’

‘The gossip says she’d no’ be welcome back. Her old man has her a sinner for leavin’ the brethren and mixing wi’ unbelievers. They’re a rum lot they brethren. Ye’d hardly blink an’ it would be a sin.’

‘She’s aye at the kirk, and sayin’ prayers all the time and she keeps modest an’ looks oot for ithers, so she seems right enough tae me. An’ that young Dougal woulda enticed me awa’ frae hame too if I’da thought he’d have me.’

Isa hesitated. They said gossip was the devil’s work. But it was such a tasty morsel. ‘Ach well, there’s a story aboot that an’ all. Some’d say he was glad tae leave the north tae get awa’ frae her bossiness and wilfulness, and the religion too. She does seem more’n a mite inclined that way. . . . They made a bonnie pair though. ’Tis said he married her to save her face for following him here an’ bein’ ousted frae the family.’ She took another sip of tea and set the cup silently again before going on.

‘Ma cousin Ailsa heard in a roon-aboot way that Dougal was smitten wi’ her looks for a while when he was up there, but no’ for long. The word is, he tellt her there wasnae a future as he reckoned on the war comin’ and he was gaun tae join the military. Seems like she had ither ideas. But fair go, they did seem to be a’right th’gither till he was posted. An’ he was fair besotted wi’ the littl’un; chose her name an’ all. Ah heard tell it was because o’ the light in her eyes and her sonsie complexion he called her Claire. Agnes said it means ‘clear and bright and famous’. ‘Ye could see it might fit the wee thing . . . when she’s well that is.’

Nancy digested this in silence.

Isa continued, ‘Agnes complains aboot this place amang the Catholics and the Jews but she doesnae realise how lucky she is tae hae a place at a’. If Dougal’s Irish cousins hadnae taken her in she’d be in a right mess. It’s lucky the factor let her stay on when they moved to the country when the weans got evacuated for safety. They went after the Clydebank bombing. . . . That was awfy sad.’

On the stair outside, Agnes heard the next part of the conversation.

‘Aye, that’s another thing. She’s aye on aboot Dougal desertin’ her. Joinin’ up when he didnae need tae, him bein’ from the Irish Republic. He allus said he would fight for right though, and she couldnae move him. She thinks that makes her loss more’n others. Doesnae go doon so well aroon here. There’s nae shortage o’ the grievin’. An maist o’ the women are proud o their men for gaun in spite o’ the worry and the losses.’

‘Even she does think that, I wish she wouldnae say it in front o’ the bairn. She’ll hae enough to deal with, without thinkin her Da left her willingly.’

‘Aye, ye’re right enough aboot that, Isa. Agnes’ll no see it that way though, she’s all aboot hersel.’ 

Quietly Agnes stepped backwards down the stair, hoping no one would see her and call out; then she’d banged her way up noisily as if just arriving. Anger seared through her at the indignity of these women talking about her in that way. She’d get out of this place, and soon.

Editing: Good progress.  Stuck for days on one chapter, but moved through two today.

Critiquing: Finished the last two critique chapters yesterday. One was the continuing memoir of a London childhood in the 1940s. The other was the beginning of a new fantasy story – a war between good and evil will develop I suspect.

Reading: I’ve been flitting from book to book, trying to decide whether to persevere with a couple and needing to focus on my African stories. Five books on hold turned up today. Three of them will be useful research resources and were published after my earlier efforts completed.

Critiques, reading, editing

Day 72 (July 24)

Critiques: The month is powering on and it is time for sending chapters for critique and receiving work from others.

I did an early send to two of our members who offered to take an advance look at a chapter that I wasn’t sure worked as it is totally comprised of reflection by several of the characters after retiring for the night, following uneasy and puzzling interactions when Tony and Alexander meet with the two nurses at the aid camp. Thankfully both critiquers think the material achieves by filling personality and plot gaps as intended. I’d wrestled with other ways of conveying the necessary elements of the story without success. Hopefully when the material goes to other members they will agree, even though there are sure to be different suggestions for overall improvement, or maybe they will offer inspiration for a different approach.

Two short extracts from the chapter follow. The first focuses on the musings of Tony, a logistician, as he thinks about the local political dangers when planning his activities for the next few days.

Tony knew that even a minor provocation could translate to histrionic temper tantrums by the warlords and result in a veto on clinic activities, or additional restrictions on team movements between clinics, camps, embryo hospitals and outreach points, or even the planting of new landmines in the area. Or worse. But with guerrilla activities so unpredictable, guesses about potential reprisals could be notoriously off the mark. With the recollection that general intelligence for the area had been optimistic he dozed again. 

Recurring unease brought him suddenly awake at times.

During one of the wakeful times he started a mental check on the list of activities scheduled for tomorrow. He needed to cover all bases without reference to written lists. The commander he’d be negotiating with prided himself on getting things done and had little truck with education and learning. Tony knew that the tribal elders who would be present understood the tenuousness of talks and were always careful to avoid contentious issues. They wanted the best for their families and their people and he could rely on them to recommend good helpers for the measles campaign if agreement was achieved.

 In the second extract Alexander’s puzzlement emerges about Freya’s behaviour during their brief and unexpected meeting after many years.

Alexander lay for a while, staring at the sky without seeing it. He wrestled with a sense that something to do with Freya was out of whack but couldn’t hook it. Clearly she did not want to acknowledge their old relationship. She was the same, and different. She’d always been so open, transparent really, and now there were pockets of containment and opaqueness. A protective mechanism? He guessed she’d need something of that when doing this kind of work. The passion about anything she was doing hadn’t gone; the graceful gestures remained; still a toucher and comforter.

 So far I’ve received only one chapter for critique. It covers the ongoing development and success of the Australian opera singer who performs magnificently in Monte Carlo and who is bound for more tuition in Milan. Her ambitions are being realised. A few structural suggestions made – I hope they are useful.

I’m expecting several more submissions in coming days.

Reading: Hospital’s volume of short stories, Forecast: Turbulence has been fascinating. Such power. The blurb says: Janette Turner Hospital sensitively weaves stories of heartbreaking poignancy, shocking power and steadfast resolve, all honouring a universal question: how can we maintain equilibrium in a turbulent and uncertain world?

Although this is a theme in each of the three existing books in my family saga, it is much more so in the one I am currently editing than in the first. In the first book Past imperfect, the dilemmas are more at individual level, while the second book Present tense attempts to explore issues in a wider context. I am reaching out to emulate the power of Hospital’s prose. An elusive ambition I suspect.


While still dipping into Nigel Brennan’s different type of saga as the members of his family dealt with his incarceration and efforts to free him, I’ve also started to read The Postmistress by Sarah Blake which was recommended by a friend and just appeared on the hold shelf of the library yesterday. Looks promising.

Editing: I’ve finished the current sweep of Part One of Present tense and am now working on the humanitarian aid part of the story. Although exhaustively researched many months ago I need to re-read resources and perhaps find new material to strengthen what is already written. The passage of time has not made it any easier to represent with authenticity the atrocities that can occur between human beings or the impact of natural disasters. Among the survivors, resilience and hope prevail for those who are not broken; so many humbling stories in the midst of despair. Where are the ways to overcome evil and greed in their many guises? Maybe somewhere amongst the survivors the will and talents will emerge to find ways to share the resources of this marvellous world co-operatively?

Nostalgia day

Days 69-71 (July 21-23)

The weekend was cool with sunny days, and disappeared into a haze of minor editing and household matters.

Today, Monday:  A most agreeable day wandering around the State Library and Art Gallery areas of Brisbane. There have been massive changes since my teens. Although I find modern Brisbane an attractive and friendly city there is a fair bit of nostalgia for the ‘old days’. Some of the newer buildings are appealing in themselves but I do find the mix of old and new unsightly – too many different styles without a unifying pattern.

I remember the old Treasury Building with much affection. One day after returning from a boat trip to Moreton Island, a group of us, tired and full of sun, sprawled on the footpath leaning against the warm stone as the evening temperature fell, comforted by the retained heat as we waited for transport home. That it is now a casino sits ill with me although I understand it is good for the city economy. But what about the impact of gambling addiction for so many? I’ve included a few photographs.

I didn’t have time to visit the Art Gallery but look forward to doing that soon to see the new exhibition.

Excitement ahead

Brisbane’s Eye

After that it was time to catch up with my two sisters. As always a great time for recent news and reminiscing about the past.

Back to serious editing tomorrow.

Treasury Building in foreground

Editing, reading, meeting

Days 66-68 (July 18-20)

Great days recently. Rain during nights, followed by cool mornings and daytime sun – a treat. Library has been quiet, conducive to concentration and good work.

Quiet here today

Editing: Steady work continues through the chapters of Present tense – about half way through. Freya has divorced, become an aunt, lost her parents, her job and then her grandmother. Set for her first placement as a humanitarian aid volunteer she endures a terrifying interruption to her flight to Nairobi. On arrival she is disappointed to find that her mission might be aborted because of escalating violence around her South Sudan destination.

A short extract from my story:

Now she was in exotic Nairobi. Nothing had prepared her for arrival in this place; not the readings, not the film or video viewings, not the avid attention to briefings, nor prolonged reflections, or any previous experiences. Everything was different, and crowded. She felt vulnerable, unready; and still a long way from her final destination.

It wasn’t only the tiredness from the flights and dramatic events. One of the short-notice vaccinations had turned her left upper arm into a red and throbbing, hot and itchy mass. Limp against her cabin backpack in a corner of the baggage claim area she waited. Freya decided that Leka was right when he’d said, ‘You have to be in a place to know it.’

The pushing and shoving was unnerving. She realised she’d forgotten how empty Australia was, even compared with Europe. Here everything felt crowded and overwhelming and aggressive. And home seemed so orderly.

As the system started to crank the miscellany of luggage on its way Freya stood back waiting until the crowd cleared. Her bag was one of the last on the turntable. It felt heavy. She told herself it was just tiredness from the long flights that had set her nerves on edge.

Then the message attached to the board held aloft as she passed through the arrivals area gate discouraged her some more; she was to make her own way to the MSF house. Backpack aboard she found a Reception Desk clerk who phoned the number recommended in the note for a taxi. It wasn’t really like her to be thrown by such a small issue. No doubt they’d given up on her because of the serial delays.

Outside, the humidity and heat magnified the smells she had expected. It was an effort not to gag as the taxi navigated wildly through the vehicles coming from all directions, the potholes, the people and the animals. The driver was being friendly, asking Freya where she had come from and what she was doing here. Even though she felt churlish she answered as briefly as possible, just wanting him to concentrate on driving.

Reading: I’ve always meant to read a Marian Keyes book but didn’t get round to it till now. I tried to stay with The brightest star in the universe, but gave up about a third of the way through.Maybe should have persevered but decided there were more engaging novels on my shelf.

Above all a story of family strength

As of last night and today I’m turning the pages of books by two Australian authors: The price of life: The true story of an Australian held to ransom for 462 days by Nigel Brennan (see more below), and Forecast:Turbulence by Janette Turner Hospital, a short story collection. You can find her reading an extract from one of the compelling stories on http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/dark-matter/story-e6frg8n6-1226168813974  I recommend it.

Author talk: Last evening there was a big turnout for Nigel Brennan’s scripted Q & A session followed by audience questions about the experiences of his family here in Australia and his own during his imprisonment with a Canadian woman colleague in a Somalian jail: a salutary tale. When Nigel was signing my copy of his book we chatted briefly. He mentioned me he’d attended writing classes by Bryce Courtenay who had rated one of the most useful tools for a writer was bum glue. No problem about that for me; as the local library staff could attest. Just need a good dose of the right kind of talent to go with the effort.  

Ready for a weekend of more reading.

Editing, reading, this and that

Days 57-65 (July 10-17)

Today, July 17, the library was very quiet. It’s like that most Tuesdays. Returned to editing yesterday after days of doing this and that. Nothing new to report; same issues arising as before. Just a slog, with some satisfaction at moving along, however slowly.

Quiet here today

For a few days there was no writing, no editing. Had fun surfing the net looking for ebook cover designers. There are lots of them – fees differ remarkably. Unsure if they reflect differences in quality of images. Found a couple whose designs I really liked – closest one is in New Zealand. When I’m ready I’ll contact her.

Read another Anna McPartlin book So what if I’m broken – again located in Dublin, about a dysfunctional family and how they individually, and often together, found their way through a gamut of experiences with life’s darker issues – wonderfully and sympathetically written. See http://annamcpartlin.com/ or http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Anna-McPartlin/44893203/interview_with_id/746 for more information.

July 12: I do not miss the tensions that always went along with this day during my seven years in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s, and around Glasgow before that.

Instead I enjoyed a wonderful morning coffee catch-up with two writer friends. Turned out we all feel just a little stale – maybe the weather, although the three of us have a preference for these cooler days.  Our lively chat left me feeling fresher and more motivated. I hope the time together had the same effect for them.

From there I hurried home to cook. One brother and his partner from the far north of Queensland arrived later for several days of talk and reminiscence for us all. Although only two years apart, my brother and I remember such different things and even for the same events our interpretations are often so unlike. Gender differences? Age differences? It was good to have some more women-talk as well. The house felt really empty when they left.

Editing and other activities

Days 50-56 (July 3-9)

Cold days continue with rain at times. Conducive to work but I feel as if I’ve been skiving even though a few things got done.

At State Library of Queensland

My thanks to Five Reflections for following my blog. I love the haiku. I’d forgotten about it after being introduced to the form a few years ago. Led me to read up on it again and also found a reference to tanka as well. I would find it a challenge to write but the reading of so many examples was soothing.

Critiquing: Last Friday was Writers Group critique day. A very lively time as one of the stories took us on a visit to a Kama Sutra room in a castle. Our other stories seemed mundane by comparison but there were helpful suggestions all round. One of our members had several stunning sequences on a tropical storm.

Editing: Has been bitty. I was unable to move past the first fifty pages for submission to a manuscript development program. Every time I looked at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter everything seemed wrong – so many changes – until I decided enough was enough. After all the work is to be considered for development. Today I delivered the pages by hand.


So much for change

A day in Brisbane: After dropping off the pages to the Queensland Writers Centre I visited the Gallery of Modern Art and the main Art Gallery. GOMA was a puzzle – I found very little that I could appreciate, and mostly all that I did like was the Aboriginal art, especially the very colourful dot painting work and several most exquisite tonal bark pictures. I wish I’d thought to photograph a couple of them as reminders. The main gallery is being readied for a major exhibition so there was much work going on.

Reading: Last week I picked up a book from the library Features Stand by the author who is giving this month’s author talk. The title is Blood born, written by Australian author Kathryn Fox, a medical practitioner with an interest in forensic medicine. A very grisly, complex and informative tale. I look forward to hearing about her work and writing two days from now. Thankfully the print size is comfortable though not large-print; always a relief.

New financial year

Days 46-49 (June 29-July 2)

Monday: Happed up for the cold weather. Lots of coughs and sniffles in the library today. There are nasty bugs around – some friends and family have succumbed. Noticed many young ones still in shorts and T-shirts.

A good editing day and wrote some new words as well. Will review them tomorrow. Finished an Anna McPartlin novel (Because you are with me) set in Dublin – a story of grieving and healing and friendships and love and a struggle with vocation.

Sunday: One financial year has ended and a new one started with our carbon tax, mining tax, and more asylum seeker boat arrivals. Big picture life feels unsatisfactory and complicated. Small picture life at home is fine.

We have a few calendars and this was page changing day. Both our Northern Ireland calendars feature Carrick-a-Rede, a narrow, wobbly rope bridge over a chasm that links the mainland with Rathlin Island, an interesting place of history. A metaphor for lots of things I can think of! Another page takes me back to the magnificent peace of Lake Louise in Canada. It was my privilege to visit there last year. The calendar on the kitchen bench that helps us keep track of family movements and landmark events shows a panoramic view of the distinctive peaks of the Glasshouse Mountains just north of here rising from the mist, along with a saying of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. What an ambition for a would-be writer. These mountains feature in my first two stories. On the study wall, Macchu Pichu explodes from the page. I haven’t been there, lots of mysteries.

Friday and Saturday: Lazy days from a writing perspective. Home matters took priority.

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