on the writing & reading trail

Archive for August, 2012

Edit diary, writing, reading

Day 110 (August 30)

Editing: I continue to work on Present tense (Book 2 of 3).

The morning started well; mind felt clear, and I decided to skip continuity to a chapter containing different content. This is partly because the next chapter is currently with our Writers Group for critique at the end of next week and it seems prudent to wait for feedback before making changes there.

So, today I am with Alexander in an isolated setting in Kruger National Park and then in the air above the Park. He is enjoying this new adventure that began with an unexpected display of violence by a rogue elephant which found its way into the camp where his group of would-be photojournalists were starting the day. Although I made many changes (nothing of great significance) I decided to revisit earlier relevant research materials with a view to expanding a small part of the chapter. I found what I wanted, but more importantly I’ve ear-marked several topics from resources for possible incorporation into the third book relating to Freya’s experience in a Kruger game reserve.

A short sample from the Alexander chapter follows. He is undertaking an aerial survey in preparation for next year’s project, after leaving his boss at Park HQ in Skukuza to work on preliminary negotiations about locations:

For the first part of the flight Alexander was exhilarated in a low-key way by the natural appearance of animal trails and water holes spread across endless low scrub and grasses; little different from what he’d seen already. All looked well with the world until he met the obvious boundary between the park and humanity. The differences were stark. On the one side, evidence of rhinos, buffalos, wildebeests, impalas, elephants and more. On the other side very little natural land was visible, clearly overused for shelter, cattle grazing and cultivation by and for the vast and needy populations of people and beasts.

Alexander turned the cameras off and on as the landscape changed. Although he was fairly confident the sophisticated automatic and computer-driven cameras were working well, he backed up by taking notes on the board strapped to his thigh. Also when the terrain changed he shot a short manual segment with commentary and GPS record.

Writing: Today’s post brought WQ, the monthly publication of the Queensland Writers Centre. I’ve earmarked a number of short story competitions to follow up on as I’ve five or six stories that might fit if I did some work on them, and an endless fund of ideas. Time is the only commodity in short supply. Will have to decide a balance between urgency for editing and tackling some novelty action.

Reading: Crossing to safety is so beguiling. The four main characters feel vibrant and real. I want to invite them to a party. The power of first person writing is potent. I think I will explore that in a couple of short stories soon. Also I may be developing a little courage about trying to improve my blogsite. The WordPress book is helping. Hopefully changes will be evident soon – maybe at the weekend.

Edit diary, unusual words, writing

Day 109 (August 29)

Editing: A good day I think, not so much an edit as a complete rewrite of half a chapter. Won’t make a judgement on the outcome for a day or two until I re-read it fresh again.

I was working on an interaction between three Australians and a Scot. Whilst they had no difficulties with understanding each other’s accents it reminded me of watching Billy Connolly’s program again last night when he ended up in the wild west of Canada. Wonderful characters he met along the way. Some people have difficulty with Billy’s accent and sayings at times. So here are some examples of speech you could meet any day in or near Glasgow.

Unusual words: Here is a sentence and then a saying.

Aiblins the lad’s ahint thon tattie-bogle. (Perhaps the boy is behind that scarecrow.)

Sic as ye gie, sic wull ye get. (You’ll get out of life as much as you put in.)

When I look back to my early years in Scotland it seems amazing that I ever sorted it out because it wasn’t only the words but the different accents as well. And the Scots speak on the fast side, but are no match for the Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland. They left me breathless to keep up but by that time at least I’d mastered the words and accents which are very similar to the Scots.

Looking at my bookshelf to find an envelope today it struck me how seldom I use my hard-copy reference resources now. It’s all internet; so quick and versatile and accessible.

Little used now

Writing: Apart from the rewriting that arose from editing, I did finish the cricketing poem – very primitive and freeform effort, and not prize-winning material, but I’m pleased I persevered.

Edit diary, reading, critiquing, listening and writing

Days 104-108 (August 24-28)

Edit diary: I meant to take a longer break from editing but couldn’t manage it even though most of the work was in the head without a finger to keyboard till yesterday when I experienced a rush of progress with all the highlighted areas in the manuscript, over three chapters. Because it felt so easy I feel confirmed in the highlight-and-return  approach to editing. I just don’t always remember and sometimes try to stay with an awkward passage less productively.

Reading: I continue to delight in Crossing to safety.

Recently I’ve been trying to find a volume that I can relate to, to help me improve and manage this WordPress blog site more effectively, with mixed success. Hopefully the one that turned up on the hold shelf of the library in my name today will be the one I can understand and follow. Am feeling just a bit thick about a few things but the first look is promising.

Critiquing: It’s that time again and the chapters are coming in for critiquing. It is so enjoyable to follow the stories of colleagues  through even though in short instalments.

I’ve already had useful and thought-provoking comments on my own chapter – caused real pause for thought about how to clarify the personality issues behind a major flaw of the protagonist. So clear in my head but hasn’t managed to translate sufficiently to the page. She does eventually overcome the problem but there will be much water under the bridge before that.

Listening: Today’s lunch-time author talk was most enjoyable – by Tasmanian author Stephen Dandos-Collins about his new book Mistaken identity: the trials of Joe Windred. We were taken through the wonderful research journey undertaken by himself and his wife to uncover a true story that people would scoff at if promoted as fiction. As an audience we know many of the twists and turns in the story but the final one was left as enticement to unfold that mystery. I have requested the book already and am fourth on the list.

Writing: Today I posted off a short story for a competition; almost a memoir but with enough fictional padding to deny that label. I did a quick audit of my short stories to realise that family is the basis for all but one of them. That fits with the family saga aspect of my three novels. As the oldest of seven I suppose it should be no surprise.

Editing priority change

Day 103 (August 23)

Editing: Decided to change the priority for a couple of days as energy levels are low – maybe the result of a day in the city with all the flu bugs around and lots of coughing in the bus on the way home yesterday evening. Everything feels lighter near home with a wildlife corridor running metres away from our house. Feeling like a dose of new creativity, so will focus on writing. There are a few competitions coming up.

Writing: Poetry is not my forte and nor is cricket for that matter but I’ve decided to have a bash – up to 150 words. An unlikely challenge but will certainly take me beyond usual comfort zone. Won’t tell my husband who is not quite a cricket fanatic but used to be close, just yet. I once did the unpardonable when I started to read a book at a cricket match because from our distant seats I was unable to see the ball and had no idea how it was going. Backyard games or small ovals like Canberra were more my scene.

There are also a couple of stories to tidy up that fit the word limits and if there’s time I might even try a short non-fiction stint. Could be a refreshing change from editing – maybe a week.

Mainly relaxation day today – minor editing and reading

Days 101-102 (August 21-22)

 Editing: Will spend a little time on editing yesterday’s highlighted areas of later chapters of Present tense, but don’t expect to get far as it’s becoming late. Also did some mental work on the way to the city in the bus this morning, and of course pen and notebook to hand so none of the gems get lost.

 Reading: Brisbane City Library had a book on hold for me and it took all my attention on the way home – Crossing to safety by Wallace Stegner.The book came to notice through Jennifer Byrne’s First Tuesday Book Club a few weeks ago. I am hooked already by the first pages and the biographical note and introduction; a book about friendships. The notion appeals, partly because my own three novels are based around family and friendships. No doubt there will be many thoughts as more pages are devoured.

Last night I finished The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – a sad but inevitable end. An important read for Australians and closely based on a true story.

Art Gallery: Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado was well worth a visit. As I’m not familiar with Spanish art it was an education to see the changes in style over the centuries. And a reminder of the prominence of religion and royalty in art. The exhibition was well attended with a number of guided groups being introduced to the main works in each of the galleries. The absolute stand-out for me was in the entrance area. Won’t spoil it by comment, but a must see for anyone interested in attending. Cameras were clicking at a major rate; the only place they were permitted.

Editing of family and friendship saga continues: Present tense

Days 96- 100 (August 17-21)

Editing: Slowly getting through a few more awkward chapters. Previous editing changes have a flow-on effect that has led to a substantial rethink, not of content but of presentation. Dialogue has been compressed. Not sure how the many repetitions escaped previous scrutiny. Have also found numerous paragraphs which are improved by bringing the final sentence forward to the beginning – an unfortunate and recurring tendency I’ve noted. Have highlighted many segments for further work this time round.

Tomorrow’s tasks

The end is night though, for this edit – only six chapters remaining. Then I’ll take a break and go through it all again to check whether the changes have worked and how much more fine-tuning is needed. Am more or less satisfied that no extensive alterations are required. Hoping the next sweep through won’t change my mind.

Hoping to move on to Book Three (probably to be titled Future hope) by the middle of September.

Reading: Ran out of time to finish Anna Funder’s award winning novel All that I am. It is in demand and the library wants it back – no extensions possible. Because I was reading it in short stints I couldn’t seem to relate strongly to any of the characters. Probably a book that is better approached when there is continuity of time. I will request it again.

Am just about finished The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a dark tale by Thomas Keneally. Not enjoyable but of interest and I’m supposing with many true insights into the experience of a proportion of Aborigines of mixed descent when subjected to continual discrimination. Some wonderful poetic passages around environment and flora.

I’m also still dipping into Wanted women: faith, lies and the war on terror: the lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui and Emma’s war, both by Deborah Scroggins

Recreation: Friday’s coffee catch-up with friends was a delight as usual. So was Sunday’s walk in the park. Still didn’t find my bird friend (pictured). A beautiful afternoon with need for alertness to dodge the many cyclists enjoying the afternoon.

Elusive bird

Tomorrow is a visit to the Prado Exhibition at the Art Gallery and a birthday lunch for one of my sisters. Looking forward to that. Wonderful sky as I waited for a bus.


Editing of Present tense moving on

Days 94-95 (August 15-16)

Editing: A fair bit of time today was spent with an awkward chapter. Freya was attending a conference in Nairobi and being introduced to the challenges experienced by health workers striving to gain recognition and action at all levels to address the escalating AIDS epidemic in many African countries. In the late nineties the responses were varied with some health authorities choosing the route of denial.

In my chapter I hadn’t got the balance right to avoid it seeming like an information dump. Problem is that even before making changes the content fell so far short of representing the situation. But I need to remember I am writing a fiction not a treatise, so there is a need to weigh the offsets. The full facts (so far as they can be) are in other places, in the background reading.

My information came mainly from the work of Canadian journalist, Stephanie Nolen and a report of the MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines which was published sometime after my relevant timeframe but indicated their earlier involvement. Some details can be found:  http://www.msfaccess.org/our-work/overcoming-barriers-access/article/1374    and http://www.msfaccess.org/the-access-campaign

Nolen’s book 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa is a remarkable collection and I commend it to anyone with an interest in this area.

Hopefully my chapter is improved now. Will re-read it tomorrow. A short extract follows:

The AIDS presentations made Freya’s head spin as stories of ignorance and inertia unfolded.

Experiences were different in different countries and communities as reported by health workers, journalists, and several brave souls determined to advocate for others at the expense of their own reputations.

Most shocking of all were the cover-ups; leaders of countries apparently in denial of the existence of the disease in their communities, unable to accept the reality of departures from the phantom moral codes; denying that hazardous sexual practices were occurring, contrary to supposed cultural norms. Individuals who did not want to admit to casual partnering outside their traditional marital structures often avoided testing. And some men who were tested chose not to tell multiple wives of their positive HIV status. 


Exercise: A long walk in the park after yesterday’s editing was a delight. Warmth and sun and few cyclists made for a comfortable time in good company with an author friend who is planning the launch of her fifth book next month. I’m looking forward to reading it.

This wonderful bird was elusive yesterday but I caught him on a recent visit.

Still for a portrait

Relaxation: Tomorrow is a fun day. Am meeting some writer friends for coffee and a chat that will carry us through to lunchtime – always enjoyable. Apart from talk of writing matters and progress on compiling our anthology, we catch up on personal things as well. Writing brings great friendships. Congratulations to Nene who was featured on this blog as a guest author recently. She had word that a story will appear in an anthology soon. Great excitement.

Edit progress and unusual words

Days 88-93 (August 9-14)

Editing: Editing continued to be disjointed in recent days but with good and enjoyable reason; spending time with a grey nomad couple from Western Australia. The woman has a long-ago connection with my husband’s younger sister who is still in Northern Ireland. Unsurprising that there were gaps and confusions with decades-old memories, but entirely expected that there was a lot of laughter. The Irish are like that. And although cold, the weather held good with sunny days for their visit.

A walk in the park reminded that it is wattle time; not so good for hay-fever sufferers but bright and magnificent and uplifting for others. The ducks were enjoying themselves.

Golden wattle

Even so some chapters did get revised. No reading though.

Ducks in the creek

And then today I got stuck into editing, and back-tracked to some earlier chapters (which hadn’t had recent scrutiny) in the second part of Present tense. I finished up feeling satisfied with work on two-and-a-bit chapters. The following short extract describes Freya’s arrival in South Sudan after a stop-off in Nairobi:

June 1997 – Arif:  Freya hung on to the arms of her seat tightly, white-knuckled, as the Mission Aviation Fellowship plane circled the area and flew into the rough landing strip in a spiral. Now there was a problem with this aircraft. Her placement was doomed before it could start. She should have read the signs. She wasn’t meant to do this. All those hindrances and delays over recent months had surely been pointing that way.

On the ground, four passengers melted through the crowd that was clamouring around the unloading efforts, to board vehicles waiting on the edge of the packed-dirt tarmac. Two guards edged the swarm back as a line of workers broke into a clearly familiar pattern of passing the large packages from plane to ready hands, to other hands, until till they reached a waiting United Nations truck. Within minutes Freya realised the scrawny starving people in the periphery weren’t here for distribution as she’d assumed. The packages were destined for storage first.

Freya struggled to keep her expression neutral at this first evidence of the reality that starvation and malnutrition were the highest priorities in the area. Desperate people scrabbled along the edge of the transit line for pickings. Oblivious of injury risk, children of all sizes crawled between the legs of the workers to retrieve a few grains of rice or corn or a packet of therapeutic biscuits that might fall from a damaged container. Hunger is a powerful driver. The workers were thin but seemed healthy and strong enough. They had work; they had money; they must be able to get some food.

It wasn’t like that for those on the fringes, the scarecrows. She saw two women faint; their ribs barely covered by skin. They were almost trampled until dragged beyond the throng to be cared for by family members who fanned them with dusty branches wrenched from the sparse shrubs on the boundary of the air strip.

As there was no sign of an MSF logo or anyone who might be looking for her, Freya remained in the wing-shade of the plane. Heat crushed in on her whole body. Overcome by a cascade of sneezes and coughs triggered by the swirls of fine dust thrown up by all the activity, her breaths became shallow and barely sustaining. She leaned against a wheel strut, and pulled the cotton scarf from her neck to hold it over her nose and mouth.

Unusual words: More Scots words today.  One of my major characters who is a presence through all three books of the saga had an unfortunate experience. I might have written about her to say:

Gramma haed a shock an’ twas a sair strouchle tae walk a straucht line. That is, Gramma had a paralytic stroke and found it a hard struggle to walk in a straight line.

It took me some time to learn interpret speech like this, but in the end I was mainly successful. It was usually from older rural folk.  I wonder how common usage is now.

Tonight Billy Connolly has a double TV program Journey to the edge of the world, so I’m primed after thinking about old Scots chat today.

Editing, critiquing and research

Days 79-87 (Jul 3-August 8)  

Edit diary: Editing time has been patchy and feels unsatisfactory.Recent days have been full of distractions; catching up with friends, cooking to stock up the freezer, hobbling round with painful muscles after overdoing some exercise, overdue housework to make our home presentable for visitors.

Critiquing:  Our Writers Group meeting last Friday (see photos of wonderful colleagues) was excellent with welcome feedback for all who submitted material even though it left some of us with puzzles about conflicting views and suggestions about tackling some plot or character issues. Whilst the perennial suggestions for how to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ are a constant at our meetings, there were some stunning examples of ‘showing’ in some passages. And we learn from each other.

Treasured colleagues

More of us

Short story:  In a separate entry, I have great pleasure in introducing a short story Miss Understood  by Writers Group colleague and friend, Nene Davies.  

Reading:  Has been disjointed because of constant reference to research resources as I edit my second story Present tense while I have relevant books from the library; to recheck and / or to flesh out information regarding war correspondents and the challenges for aid volunteers in Africa in the late 1990s. Sadly in South Sudan current upheavals seem like a re-run from that time. Even though the political structure has changed, the underlying disputes around resources, ethnic differences, and national and local disagreements persist.

Research:  Because it is such a joy to read one of the books, Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins in a large print library edition I’ve been finding it difficult to set it aside even when I’ve found the reference(s) I need. So good not being distracted and slowed down by struggles with the small lettering in my personal copy. Thankfully most of the other books are easier on the eye.

Although the Scroggins timeframe is a little before my story, her book provides a wonderful panorama of the political and aid environments leading up to the later famine years and the increasing unrest that claimed so many lives through violence, malnutrition, starvation and ill health.

Médecins Sans Frontières websites claim me for hours at a time, reading of the work of the volunteers and the experiences of the survivors of the turmoil as they seek help in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. The amazing MSF videos should be compulsory viewing by the whole world.

Why aren’t these people (and others like them in many countries) the ones we welcome to Australia? They have no money to help them move between countries and then buy places on leaky boats. Of course the issues are complex for all asylum seekers and many, many have unmet needs. In my novel the volunteers often have to make diabolical choices about who receives priority for medical care because resources are finite. Same with asylum seekers. We can’t take everyone. My preference is for governments to focus on those people in the most dire circumstances with the fewest or no choices.

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