Exhausted & Faber Academy Week 4

Between getting my Ampersand submission to a point where I felt ok about submitting it, having teeth emergencies, family visits, school visits and other deadlines, I can say with some certainty that exhaustion has set in.

I need now to finish writing the flesh of the novel, and in six weeks I head to sunny San Fran. Is it sunny in San Fransisco?

Faber Academy is still going strong. I was sitting there tonight and thinking about what an incredibly hard job it must be to have a roomful of hopeful writers sitting at a table you expecting you to teach them to write. Sally’s doing an amazing job, and I’m finding each week so valuable. Workshopping is good. It’s nice to get a range of feedback, both to get used to receiving a variety of feedback about your work, but also to decide what to take on board and what to disagree with. Since Andy’s visit too, I’ve been writing lists & observations just for ten minutes every day and I’m finding that hugely helpful.

I’m determined to keep up the twice weekly blogging as I feel that I’m finally getting into the swing of it.

This week was about structuring the novel and the ‘inciting incident’. The exercise was slightly different in that we started by writing a sentence about something we do every day. We then had to add the problem, the ‘inciting incident’. Then we spent 20 minutes in dot points outlining where we thought the story was going. So the format for the piece below is scattered, and I found that some of the points I’d written initially changed slightly once I’d figured out where I was heading with it. Having said that, I’m looking forward to turning it into a whole piece. I think it might make a nice early reader.

…Every morning I make a smoothie for breakfast with almond milk, frozen fruit and a banana.

One morning I filled the blender to 250ml with almond milk, I added 3 stawberries and 6 rasberries and a half a frozen banana.

I threw the banana into the blender and pressed ‘on’. The blade jammed. I opened the lid and looked inside. Was that a…?? It was!! A great big horrid, scaly toenail. And worse, it wasn’t a toenail on my banana, my banana (or what I thought was a banana) was actually a toe. Well now it was what was left of a toe.

  • he fishes the toe out of the blender
  • it’s a very big toe
  • who could it belong to?
  • there is a noise, a shudder, then stillness and silence
  • Billy creeps to the window
  • he peels back the curtain
  • he peeks through the window
  • a giant eyeball peeks back
  • Billy peers at the eyeball, the eyeball peers at him
  • “Have you got my toe?” asks the giant
  • Billy gulps
  • He hands out the mangled remains of the toe
  • he waits for the giant to crush him
  • instead the giant starts crying, great big shuddering sobs that make the floor shake and the windows rattle
  • “I’m a B-grade football player” sobs the giant “I’ve got my test for the A league this Saturday. Without my big toe I’ll never kick the winning goal.”
  • Billy stops. He thinks. He brightens. “Well that’s ok” he says “We’ll just have to find you a new one!”
  • They try all sorts of toe substitutes. A Zucchini (squishes when the ball hits it), a carrot (pops the ball with its pointy tip), the remote control to the telly (but that got too distracting when Bugs Bunny kept turning on in the background “my favourite show!” exclaims the giant”), a bar of soap (but that’s too slippery)
  • Finally Billy goes into the kitchen. He starts throwing open cupboards. Into a pan goes flour. In goes salt. In goes blue. Blue? Yes blue. The exact same shade of blue as the giant himself. And finally in goes water.
  • The giant watches
  • Billy reaches in and pulls out a clump of blue dough. He wraps it around a pencil and attaches it to the giant’s toe but wrapping it tight with clingwrap.
  • The giant looks down. “Why, it’s just like my real toe. You’re the nicest little boy I’ve ever met”. He picks Billy up and takes him to the football ground where he kicks the winning goal. He’s in!
  • He turns to give Billy a thumbs up and his thumb falls off. Billy groans and pulls out a roll of gladwrap.

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Just a quick one this week. I’ve been flat out with school visits, parent visits and polishing the first five chapters of my manuscript for submission. Phew.

Cinder has been on my reading pile for a while now, but when Leanne Hall pegged it as her book of the year when we’re only in January I have to say I was intrigued. Now having read it, I’m not far off agreeing.

Cinder is an incredible opening to a new series of books – The Lunar Quartet which takes (in turns) on the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and Snow White. But this isn’t your traditional overhaul of a fairy tale. There are no extended gothic remixes here, only cyborgs, aliens and humans in a world that has been shattered by war and plague.

Cinder has enough familiar moments that the original fairytale is clearly recognisable, but the slant of the story is totally unique. As a character Cinder is a striking new heroine for young adults. Part cyborg, she is essentially a slave to her wicked stepmother who treats her as though she is less than human. She is working as a mechanic in the marketplace when an outbreak of the plague strikes. It is a viscous plague which is attacking all of the citizens, and worse the Emperor. To cure the Emperor’s illness, Cyborgs are being involuntarily drafted as test subjects for a cure. None have survived.

This isn’t a magical tale where a fairy godmother sweeps in and makes everything better with a wave of her wand. Cinder is a striking, independent character who makes her own luck – and not all of it good. There is more to compare between the novel and traditional fairy tales – which have their fair share of suffering – than with the popular sanitised versions in films and cartoons.

The only major fault with Cinder is in the ending. This is very clearly part of a quartet, and readers who speed through the pages hoping to be rewarded with a conclusion may be disappointed. If you tend to be impatient I would recommend waiting for the full series to be releases before picking this one up. If you like to have something to look forward to though, then give this a go. An extremely rewarding piece of speculative fiction.

Faber Academy – Week 3

Sorry that this one’s a bit late! I’ve had a week of school talks, emergency fillings and other joys.

Faber Academy week three – how quickly it’s all going! This week we had a guest speaker – master of bum jokes, Mr Andy Griffiths himself! Andy has just released an e-book called Andypedia, which is super cheap and contains a lot of info about his stories, including where they came from. This is pretty useful stuff for writers who hope to one day tap into the kids market as successfully as he has.

Unfortunately I missed most of his talk – I had a school talk in Geelong so I didn’t get back to the city until half an hour before the end – but even that half hour was pretty worthwhile! We didn’t do any writing in class, but Andy talked about writing practice, and filling a page a day, with free unprocessed writing.He suggested that a good way to do this is just observational stuff – lists/details etc. It’s good writing practice, good practice at noticing and you never know when it might come in handy! So today when I arrived at a school talk half an hour early and it was just around the corner from this beautiful isolated piece of beach it seemed like a good time to do just that! Here’s the result.

…Beach smells like salt and a little bit like dead fish. I can see the blue of the sea just peeking out above the bushes that cover the slight rise in front of me. I can hear the waves but I can’t see them. There is a bit of wind – enough to blow that ocean smell – the one from my childhood up here to me, but not enough to blow away the warmth of the sun on my legs and my back.

It is sunny, but not unbearably so. I can still read my words. The sun isn’t shining enough yet to make the paper a blinding, unreadable white.

There are little grey butterflies/moths? fluttering around the grey shrub directly in front of me, invisible but for the movement of their wings. There are dandelions and some sort of green creeper that is covering everything – it has even grown into the grey plant and is curling up the stems in a caress, but maybe not a gentle one.

Not many of the trees are tall as is so often the case with beach trees. It’s as if they know that there’s a view and don’t want to block it. There is one stump poking up higher than the rest and a few spindly gum trees – reminding me that this is not just a beach, but an Australian one. There is sand and gravel where I’m sitting. A little alcove with two wooden picnic benches faded to the grey of driftwood, a barbeque under a shelter, and for some odd reason, a giant stone wombat. Are there wombats here? I doubt it.

I can see the surf club but no path down to the beach itself. When I walked further along there was an opening, but closed off with a wire fence and the stone wall behind had a circle with a cross painted on it saying – “don’t go here”.

What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam

Everyone has thought about the power they would choose if they could have a superpower right?
Faced with the choice of flying or invisibility what would you choose?

In Steven Amsterdam’s second book “What the Family Needed” we’re invited into the lives of a family who are given exactly what they need – or at least what they think they need. One by one each of the characters tells their story and we discover the single wish that each has had granted.

It’s a good book, and cleverly written. Each character is given one chapter in which they are the focus, and when the narrative is passed to the next family member, time passes too. In this way, we are given an intimate look into a very select group of characters but over a significant timespan – which is one of the many points that makes this novel unique.

In regards to the superpowers, it’s hard to give anything away without telling too much – I don’t want to discuss the powers people get, why or how. Anyone who has watched a comic book movie will know that getting a superpower is never all it’s cracked up to be, and this book is no exception. Superpowers do not magically transform these mundane characters into extraordinary people, instead they deepen cracks and uncertainties that already existed within the family dynamic. But it is the mundane that makes this book incredible, not the extraordinary. The isolation of the characters, reflected in the solitary chapters illustrates perfectly the isolation that people undoubtedly feel (even if they’re surrounded by family) at some point in their lives. Each family member is so preoccupied with their flaws and their fears that they feel unable to share the most extraordinary things. It is the ideal illustration of the things that we choose to share, and the things we keep secret just to make our relationships worse.

There are superpowers in this book, but ultimately it is a book about family. There isn’t one moment where you think “hang on a minute, superpowers aren’t real” because Steven Amsterdam has so naturally woven them into the narrative that it would seem much stranger if they weren’t there. It’s the kind of book that you could imagine being called a ‘modern family fable’ for its wonderful insights into the family dynamic and individual obsessions. Most importantly, it’s an excellent read – one that will easily see you through the day and well into the night.

Into the Woods by Anna Krien

I haven’t finished this yet – and I feel as though I’m cheating a bit by reviewing it before the end, but I don’t want to do it a disservice by rushing through just for the sake of finishing.

When I asked Anna to sign a copy of “Into the Woods” for my dad for christmas (he had been harbouring not-so-secret desires of moving to Tasmania because of the picture perfect landscape, so the book seemed only fitting) she wrote “some curious stories about a curious island”. It seems apt that she would use the plural as this is, in many ways a book that would be read well in short(ish) bursts rather than in one full sitting. It is comprehensive look at issues that are complex and deeply rooted in the history of both the environment and the people who live there, and so it would be unfair to assume an understanding after only a cursory read. It is a book that needs digesting. More so, it is one that deserves it.

Anna Krien has done a magnificent job just to wrap her own head around the issues stewing in the middle of this ongoing battle. More than magnificent is the way that she has woven them into this account which is both deeply personal and extraordinarily detailed. What takes me aback about the writing in “Into the Woods” is that while the author clearly has her own opinion on the subject matter, she has delivered what reads as an incredibly fair account of the issues and people involved. She paints personal pictures of victims on both sides, and shows a clear effort to get behind the larger machinations to all involved.

There is never a sense that she’s trying to be a hero. It doesn’t seem like a book that is trying to win awards (although it is certainly deserving) and it doesn’t seem like some patronising outsider has gone stamping into a situation they know nothing about, hoping to do everyone a favour by shedding some light on the issue. If anything, Krien is a humble narrator, completely aware of her limited understanding, and it is exactly this that shows in the equal voice she gives to characters on all sides of the battle.

It’s unlikely that I’ll sit down and finish this over the weekend – but even away from the book, I find myself thinking about it, rolling parts over in my mind that I’ll return to later. Curious stories about a curious island indeed, and I look forward to reading the rest.

Finding the right voice

I’ve been obsessed with voice recently. The voice of characters, the voice in my writing, and my very own actual voice.

All three are so connected – the voices we hear from characters as we read them, the voices we try to create as we write them, and our own voice, our own identity are inextricably linked.

So often people talk about how important it is to find your voice in your writing or to just ‘be yourself’ but there’s little advice on how to get there. Do you take a sampling of personalities, trying them on like new suits to see if their voice feels natural coming out of your mouth? Do you take a stand, deciding up front what your thoughts and opinions are going to be and refusing to budge? It’s impossibly difficult, and something that I struggle with both as an individual and as a writer.

Reading and writing YA fiction, there is a liberating freedom in knowing that your audience is probably having these same thoughts about identity and voice, and that they’re probably honest enough to know it’s not easy.

We’re often called up to defend our voices – the way we say things, the things we say, even the way other people hear them. And as writers, we are applauded if we deliver something that seems natural “so and so has really found their voice in this piece…” and so on. Does this mean that we’re stuck? That once we’ve ‘found’ it that we can’t change our minds? What if I write a piece that is totally honest, raw and real and the voice in it resonates with a particular group of people. And then what if a week, a month, or a year later I decide that I want to write something totally different, that the original readers will at best be completely ambivalent about or at worst, mock loudly and consistently. Is changing your voice selling out? It’s enough to make you want to scream.

This year I’ve found that I just couldn’t care less. And suddenly I’m writing more. For the first time I’ve made it into a piece of work further than one chapter. I have a plan for a beginning, a middle and an end. And I’m going to finish it, put it out there, and keep doing so until someone likes it. Perhaps finding your voice isn’t so much a magic moment of being right, but starting not to care when you’re wrong.

Penguin PD

I’ll be appearing at an upcoming Penguin PD at the Wheeler Centre on the 21st of March. More details will no doubt appear soon on their website but it looks set to be a good day, with authors Robert Newton and Alison Lloyd also appearing and several education consultants (including myself) talking about various bookish things.

I’ll be gabbing about dystopian fiction – one of my favourite things, so if you’re a secondary teacher in Victoria keep and eye out for details on this event.